Forsyth County Commissioners May Appeal to U.S. Supreme Court
By L.A. Williams, Correspondent
Christian Action League
RICHMOND, Va. — The controversy over allowing so-called “sectarian” prayers before Commission meetings in Forsyth County may very well be headed to the Supreme Court. The prayers, offered by faith leaders who responded to the Commission’s annual open invitation, sparked a lawsuit in 2007, which led to a recent ruling from the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals which attacks Forsyth leaders’ long-held policy of allowing people to pray according to the dictates of their own conscience.
“The majority has dared to step in and regulate the language of prayer — the sacred dialogue between humankind and God,” wrote Judge Paul Niemeyer in his dissenting opinion. “Such a decision treats prayer agnostically; reduces it to civil nicety…”
“It’s a sad day in America when a government body is ordered by a U.S. Court to tell a person to whom they can or cannot pray and how that prayer ought to be constructed when entering the public arena,” said the Rev. Mark Creech, executive director of the Christian Action League. “Our First Amendment rights don’t end once we enter the public classroom, the courtroom or the Board room. People are supposed to be free to express their faith without any government interference, regardless of the setting. Think about it. The Court ruled for a state endorsed, state mandated form of prayer that must not be deviated from whenever the people gather together for a state function. The court imposed on the people exactly what the First Amendment was supposed to prevent.”
In the 2-1 decision issued July 29, the Virginia-based judicial panel upheld a lower court’s opinion in support of two residents who said prayers offered with specific references to Jesus made them feel “unwelcome.” Backed by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), they sued the county, which followed a policy whereby any and all faith groups in Forsyth were invited to offer an invocation prior to a meeting so long as they didn’t disparage any other faith or exploit the opportunity by proselytizing. The offer was extended on a first-come, first-served basis, and to help ensure variety, no one religious leader was scheduled to pray at consecutive meetings or for more than two meetings in a year.
“We are defending the right of all private citizens to speak freely regardless of their religion and have never promoted any one religion,” Debra Conrad, the Board of Commissioners’ vice chair said Monday. “It is a deep tradition in our country to open government meetings with a brief prayer to encourage the elected official to act in wisdom and to offer positive statements to that effect.”
When annual letters of invitation were sent out to every known religious congregation in the county, some 600 or so, Commissioner Gloria Whisenhunt told the CAL that probably 90 percent of the time, it was the Christian congregations that responded.
“That’s the demographics of this area,” she said. “We don’t force anybody to come or tell anybody how to pray.” She said the invocation and the name of who was to give it, was typically listed on the agenda, along with the Pledge of Allegiance, and that anyone who did not want to hear it was not compelled to do so.
“The doors aren’t locked, they are open,” she said.
Nonetheless, “the proximity of prayer to official government business can create an environment in which the government prefers — or appears to prefer — particular sects or creeds at the expense of others,” wrote Judge J. Harvie Wilkinson III, in the Court of Appeals opinion supported by Judge Barbara Keenan. The ruling said the prayers violated the Constitution by “advancing and endorsing Christianity to the exclusion of other faiths” and that government bodies can open their meetings with prayer only if that prayer favors no particular religion.
“It is inconceivable to us how the Forsyth County policy could possibly be interpreted to exclude other faiths, when the invitation goes out to all congregations and any new group that the county hasn’t heard about is added to the mailing list by simple request,” said the Rev. Creech. “The board can’t help that the majority of faith leaders who respond are Christians and therefore many make reference to Christ.”
In his eloquent dissent, Judge Niemeyer pointed out that not only does the ruling “risk governmental intrusion in the practice of exercising religious beliefs,” but it would prohibit “sectarian” prayers “where there is no clear definition of what constitutes a ‘sectarian’ prayer. To be sure, a prayer that references Jesus is sectarian.”
“When offering legislative prayers in which the Divine Being is publicly asked for guidance and a blessing of the legislators, religious leaders will hereafter have to refrain from referencing the Divine Being with the inspired or revealed name, according to each leader’s religion,” he wrote. “The majority’s decree commands that every legislative prayer reference only ‘God’ or some ‘nonsectarian ideal,’ supposedly because other appellations might offend.”
“Christians call on the Divine Being with the names God the Father, God the Son (Jesus), and God the Holy Spirit. Muslims have 99 names for God, but Allah is the supreme appellation,” Niemeyer added. “Yet the majority opinion now directs all religious leaders to forsake these names to accommodate some ‘civil,’ court-shaped religion.”
He defended the Forsyth County meeting prayer policy as “totally neutral, proactively inclusive, and carefully implemented so that the County, in no manner, could be perceived as selecting, or expressing a preference for a particular religion or denomination, or a particular prayer.”
Alliance Defense Fund attorney Michael Johnson had earlier called the Forsyth policy the “gold standard” and said it was among the most open and inclusive ever considered by a court. Because commissioners refuse to tell people how to pray, they have not had opening prayer since early 2010 when a District Court issued its ruling in the case.
Commissioners were set to meet with Johnson Thursday in closed session to discuss whether to appeal the ruling to the Supreme Court, a move supported by both Whisenhunt and Conrad as well as Commissioner Bill Whiteheart and possibly even two more board members who have said they are leaning toward such a vote.
Whisenhunt said she is confident her constituents support the appeal and that if the board decides to move forward after the meeting with Johnson, a public hearing would be held and the board would vote in public session. She said last time such a hearing was held, it drew more than 400 people, most in support of the county’s prayer policy. Further, she said that she wanted to remind the public that no tax dollars have been used in the legal battle.
“The money is being raised here in Forsyth County and across the country,” she said. The Alliance Defense Fund is representing the Commission.