By L.A. Williams, Correspondent
Christian Action League
GREENSBORO — Supporters of Forsyth County Commissioners’ practice of allowing a clergy-led invocation before their meetings may be saying extra prayers this week as a federal judge prepares to rule on a lawsuit filed against the county by the American Civil Liberties Union.
Magistrate Judge P. Trevor Sharp heard more than 40 minutes of oral arguments Wednesday and asked a number of detailed questions of ACLU and Alliance Defense Fund attorneys at the U.S. District Court in Greensboro. The ADF is representing the county to help preserve an American tradition that dates back to the First Congress.
“This decision will have historic significance and could very well go all the way to the Supreme Court,” said the Rev. Stephen Corts, pastor of Center Grove Baptist Church in Clemmons and chairman of North Carolina Partnership for Religious Liberty, a citizens group formed to help protect the Constitutional rights of Americans of all faiths. “We are very encouraged by today’s hearing and by the fact that Judge Sharp asked a lot of questions. We believe he will take a look at all of the facts and all of the rulings that have been handed down.”
The Forsyth County Commissioners are among the latest in a number of boards being attacked by the ACLU for inviting clergy to open the group’s meetings with unregulated invocations. The ACLU, the Winston-Salem chapter of Americans United for the Separation of Church and State and three Forsyth County residents, Janet Joyner, Constance Lynn Blackmon and Osborne Mauck are plaintiffs in the case filed in March of 2007 when the county refused to demand that clergy use only non-sectarian prayers, in effect eliminating any references to whom they were praying.
Joyner, Blackmon and Mauck, all members of the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Winston-Salem where the Rev. Charlie Davis has said he prefers a moment of silence, claimed they felt uncomfortable in a meeting where someone prayed in the name of Jesus. The suit alleges that by not restricting the mention of Jesus, the county is promoting Christianity.
But the Forsyth board’s policy, which ADF Senior Legal Counsel Michael Johnson referred to as the “gold standard,” is among the most open and inclusive ever considered by a court.
“According to the U.S. Supreme Court, ‘sectarian’ references are not a problem so long as the prayer opportunity has not been ‘exploited’ to aggressively promote or proselytize one religion or disparage any other,” Johnson said in an ADF media release on the case. “Not only has the prayer opportunity never been exploited in this way at Forsyth County Commission meetings, the board has been careful to rotate the prayer duty among local religious leaders from a variety of backgrounds and denominations.”
In fact, for more than 30 years clerks to the board have sent out some 600 letters annually to every church they found listed in the telephone directory inviting clergy to sign up to lead prayer at one of the group’s twice-monthly meetings. Following the policy, the board does not tell the person praying what he or she can or cannot say.
Oddly enough, a comment from Joyner reported on Fox 8 TV, after Wednesday’s hearing sounded very similar to the Forsyth policy’s intent.
“No one has the right to tell anyone in whose name they should pray,” she said. And yet the suit that she is part of demands that the county tell ministers they can pray to God but not to Jesus, Allah or any other specific deity.
“The main issue of this case in terms of the ACLU arguments today seemed to be that their plaintiffs’ feelings were hurt, that they felt uncomfortable when they heard the sectarian prayer … that they felt excluded by the government process even when the prayer was spoken by someone who is not part of the government,” said Corts, adding that the ACLU attorney’s opening statement implied that “praying in the name of Jesus was essentially evil because it made her client uncomfortable.”
“People, regardless of their faith, need to understand what this ruling will mean in terms of religious freedom,” Corts added. “If you label the name of Jesus as evil, there will be no end to the muzzling of people of faith.”
As requested by both sides in the case Judge Sharp will give a summary judgment, which he promised to issue soon. Though both Johnson and Corts are optimistic for a victory for the county, the battle may well continue.
“The ACLU has much larger coffers than we do and I think they will push to the Supreme Court,” Corts said. “Quite frankly, they have bullied a lot of towns and counties over this issue, so I think they’ll have to continue to pursue it.”
At the same time it began its war with Forsyth, the organization sent letters to a dozen other North Carolina municipalities demanding that they change their policies to allow only nonsectarian prayers. Late last year the ACLU offered to settle the suit if the county would pay legal fees, reportedly some $60,000, and promise to enforce a nonsectarian prayer only policy.
“Too many times, these government bodies simply roll over and don’t defend our freedoms,” said the Rev. Mark Creech, executive director of the Christian Action League of North Carolina. “We are so encouraged to see Forsyth County, with the help of the Alliance Defense Fund, the NC Partnership for Religious Liberty and other supporters of liberty, taking a stand.”
“We urge Christians across the state to keep an eye on this issue and be ready to support Forsyth County when the ruling is handed down,” he added.
Court of Appeals Hears Arguments on Video Poker Ban
In another important case this week, a three-member panel of the state Court of Appeals heard arguments regarding the state’s ban on video poker Wednesday. At issue is whether the General Assembly can keep the machines out of the state while allowing the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians to have them in their casino.
Early this year Wake County Judge Howard Manning overturned the ban approved by lawmakers in 2006, but stayed his ruling until it could be appealed.
Although the Court of Appeals is not expected to release its decision for months, initial media reports indicate that Manning’s ruling may not stand. According to a Raleigh News and Observer report, “At several points in the hearing, the judges appeared highly skeptical of (Hugh) Stevens’ position that the state law (video poker ban) should be struck down.” Stevens was representing a Fayetteville amusement machine company that contends it is unfair for the Cherokee to be allowed to operate video poker machines when the rest of the state is not. An Associated Press article said two of the judges on the panel “peppered” Stevens with questions about “why it should step into a legislative policy question.”
“I always thought that the Legislature set public policy,” Judge Robert Hunter said, according to the AP report. “You seem to argue that this is somehow contrary to the public policy of the state.”
Some two dozen sheriffs from across North Carolina were on hand for the hearing to show their support for the ban of the game that has been called the “crack cocaine of gambling.”