Judicial Branch

Featured Member of the Judicial Branch for Prayer

Judge J. Harvie Wilkinson III, U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit

James Harvie Wilkinson III was born in September 1944 in New York City. He grew up in Richmond, Virginia, where he attended St. Christopher’s School. He attended the Lawrenceville School in New Jersey, then Yale University, where he received his undergraduate degree. Wilkinson served in the U.S. Army for two years and upon leaving the Army, began law school at the University of Virginia’s Law School. After completing only one year, he took a leave of absence to run for a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives. After losing the election, he returned to his legal studies.

He served as a law clerk to Justice Powell before joining the faculty at the University of Virginia School of Law. He spent three years as an editorial page editor for the Norfolk’s Virginian Pilot before resuming his legal career by joining the Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Department of Justice, eventually becoming deputy assistant attorney general.

In 1983, President Ronald Reagan nominated Wilkinson to the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals. Following Senate confirmation, he received his commission in August 1984.

Wilkinson and his wife have two children.


The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit ruled 10-5 in favor of the American Civil Liberties Union of North Carolina who filed a lawsuit on behalf of non-Christian residents who claimed they felt excluded by the offering of a Christian prayer at the opening of commissioners’ meetings

The Supreme Court has already ruled that it is appropriate in limited circumstances for local clergy to deliver predominantly Christian prayers at town meetings. But in Rowan County, North Carolina, the prayers were given by elected commissioners themselves. The court also weighed in on whether the commissioners’ invitation for the audience to join them in prayer was a coercive act.

“The prayer practice served to identify the government with Christianity and risked conveying to citizens of minority faiths a message of exclusion,” Judge J. Harvie Wilkinson wrote in the majority opinion.

Judge Paul Niemeyer wrote a dissent that the majority opinion “actively undermines the appropriate role of prayer in American civic life.”