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Federal judge orders city to pay $60K to FFRF

Parkersburg, W.Va.

A federal judge has ordered the city of Parkersburg, W.Va., to pay almost $60,000 to cover attorney fees and costs of the Freedom From Religion Foundation and two of its members related to a winning lawsuit against the city. The case stems from the City Council’s decade-plus unconstitutional practice of reciting the Lord’s Prayer at every meeting. 

In May, U.S. District Judge John T. Copenhaver, Jr. issued a strong 30-page decision in FFRF’s favor. He permanently enjoined the city of Parkersburg from continuing its practice of reciting the Lord’s Prayer at each City Council meeting. Today, Copenhaver ruled that the city must cover the legal fees and costs of FFRF attorneys and outside counsel, granting $58,031.40 in attorney fees and $971.28 in costs to FFRF and its co-plaintiffs.  

In 2018, FFRF and two of its local members had sued the city of Parkersburg in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of West Virginia, to challenge the City Council’s formal recitation of the Christian “Lord’s Prayer,” which had officially opened every meeting for more than a decade. Council members led the prayer and were joined by city residents at each meeting in reciting it.

The plaintiffs include Daryl Cobranchi, who in the past had frequently attended meetings and been directed to stand for the Lord’s Prayer, a practice, he notes, that has made him conspicuous by his nonparticipation and which “assigns to second-class status anyone who is not Christian.” Likewise, Eric Engle, a Parkersburg resident, follows city matters and has felt uncomfortable and pressured to participate in the Christian prayer during public meetings.

At least one prior member of the City Council has been openly hostile to nonparticipants in the prayer ritual. Then-Councilman Eric Barber glared at attendees who sat during the prayer at a meeting. At the end of that prayer, Barber positioned himself near his microphone, pressed the button, and shouted, “Amen.” In June, Barber was sentenced to 45 days in jail for his role in the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol. 

FFRF is delighted with the outcome of the case. 

“We are pleased that the First Amendment has been upheld in this case, that Parkersburg citizens who are not Christian or religious will no longer be treated like second-class citizens, and that we have been able to recoup our costs,” said Annie Laurie Gaylor, FFRF co-president. 

Gaylor warmly thanks the local plaintiffs for standing up for secular government, a linchpin of U.S. democracy. Both Engle and Cobranchi will be receiving FFRF’s “Freethinker of the Year” awards. 

The case is No. 2:18-cv-01198. Legal representation was provided by outside counsel Marcus B. Schneider, local counsel Kristina Thomas Whiteaker, and by FFRF Attorneys Patrick C. Elliott and Christopher Line.