Transparency News 5/6/14

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

State and Local Stories

The first meeting of the FOIA Council's Records Subcommittee, part of the council's 2.5-year study of FOIA, is Wed., May 14, at 10 a.m. The meeting on the 6th Floor of the General Assembly Building will be primarily organizational in nature, according to a notice distributed by the council.

PURPHZE ... SNOTRKT ... PLAYA69 Besides laying somewhere between jive and utterly misspelled, these three phrases bear something else in common. In February, MuckRock user Andrew Mickert acquired the list of all requested vanity plates that were rejected by the Virginia Department of Motor Vehicles in 2013. YLL NVR GU3SS WTS 0N1T.

A divided Supreme Court ruled Monday that legislative bodies such as city councils can begin their meetings with prayer, even if it plainly favors a specific religion.
The court ruled 5 to 4 that Christian prayers given before meetings of an upstate New York town council did not violate the constitutional prohibition against government establishment of religion, citing history and tradition. “Ceremonial prayer is but a recognition that, since this nation was founded and until the present day, many Americans deem that their own existence must be understood by precepts far beyond the authority of government,” Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote for the court’s conservative majority.
Roanoke Times

Monday’s Supreme Court ruling on public-meeting prayer was based on a case from upstate New York, but it rewrites the rules on an issue that’s been a contentious one in the Richmond area. In 2012, Henrico County switched from an invocation to a moment of silence. The move came after the Freedom From Religion Foundation wrote to the county raising concerns about a meeting at which a prayer ending with “in Christ’s name I pray” preceded a discussion of a proposed mosque.

Roanoke County’s Board of Supervisors may be headed toward another discussion of prayer following a U.S. Supreme Court ruling handed down Monday. The board dealt with the matter in 2012, eventually passing a nonsectarian prayer policy that Supervisor Al Bedrosian is ready to strike from the books.  “The freedom of religion doesn’t mean that every religion has to be heard,” said Bedrosian, who added that he is concerned about groups such as Wiccans and Satanists. “If we allow everything … where do you draw the line?” Commenting on Monday, Bedrosian said he envisions a setup by which the supervisors would approve, individually, people from their districts to offer the opening prayer. That system would hold supervisors accountable to their districts, he added.
Roanoke Times

Former Fredericksburg City Councilman Hashmel Turner was jubilant over Monday’s United States Supreme Court ruling in which the court’s majority said prayers at public meetings can invoke specific religious language. “I think it’s a great day for America,” Turner said. “Our forefathers are smiling down and pleased with the decision the highest court in the land delivered today.” Turner, an ordained minister, started serving on the council in 2002 and participated in the rotation to offer a prayer at the start of meetings. But after a resident complained about his use of the name of Jesus Christ, Turner briefly quit taking part. Then, after getting an opinion from the Charlottesville-based Rutherford Institute, he resumed the practice. Afterward, with the American Civil Liberties Union threatening a lawsuit, the council created a policy that only allowed council members to offer “nondenominational” prayers. That November 2005 policy prompted Turner to sue the City Council, saying his First Amendment rights were being violated. The city prevailed in a July 2008 ruling by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit but, with yesterday’s ruling, Turner said he felt vindicated.
Free Lance-Star

Monday’s U.S. Supreme Court ruling in favor of public prayer at local government meetings could have ramifications on the case involving the Pittsylvania County Board of Supervisors and the American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia. In a 5-4 decision, the high court ruled that the town of Greece, New York, did not violate the Constitution by starting its town council meetings with invocations from invited members of the clergy. “It’s great for the Pittsylvania County Board of Supervisors and the game-changer we’re hoping for,” said State Sen. Bill Stanley, who is representing the board of supervisors in its case for free.
Register & Bee

National Stories

Justice Antonin Scalia is known as a consistent and principled defender of free speech rights. It pained him, he has said, when he voted to strike down a law making flag burning a crime. “If it was up to me, if I were king,” he said, “I would take scruffy, bearded, sandal-wearing idiots who burn the flag, and I would put them in jail.” But the First Amendment stopped him. That is a powerful example of constitutional principles overcoming personal preferences. But it turns out to be an outlier. In cases raising First Amendment claims, a new study found, Justice Scalia voted to uphold the free speech rights of conservative speakers at more than triple the rate of liberal ones. In 161 cases from 1986, when he joined the court, to 2011, he voted in favor of conservative speakers 65 percent of the time and liberal ones 21 percent. He is not alone. “While liberal justices are over all more supportive of free speech claims than conservative justices,” the study found, “the votes of both liberal and conservative justices tend to reflect their preferences toward the ideological groupings of the speaker.”
New York Times

White House Office of Science and Technology Policy Director John Holdren or somebody on his staff would have been well-advised to heed Sir Walter Scott's poetic warning: “What a tangled web we weave when first we practice to deceive.” As a result, the Competitive Enterprise Institute filed suit in a federal court Monday claiming Holdren violated federal law and regulation by doing something he specifically advised employees not to do. That something was using a private email account to conduct official government business. Holdren used the account he had held in his prior position as director of the Woods Hole Research Center, a prominent environmental advocacy group.
Washington Examiner


Although it wasn’t a party to the case, one of the big winners in yesterday’s Supreme Court’s split ruling for official Christian prayers is Pittsylvania County, whose supervisors have been opening their meetings with explicitly sectarian orisons. The high court ruled that officials in Greece, N.Y., could continue their own Christian invocations so long as they make a good-faith effort at inclusion. Justice Anthony Kennedy called such prayers “part of a larger exercise in civic recognition” rather than an attempt “to exclude or coerce nonbelievers.” Kennedy ranks among the justices most deferential to majoritarian arguments. His instrumentalist reading of the Constitution poses a threat to fundamental liberties.