By Tami Fitzgerald
Christian Action League
In a case challenging the Forsyth County Commissioners’ policy of opening meetings with prayer, U.S. District Judge James A. Beaty, Jr. ruled that the policy violates the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Judge Beaty’s ruling adopts recommendations made earlier by Magistrate P. Trevor Sharp that frequent and specific references to “Jesus, Jesus Christ, Christ, Savior, or the Trinity” in the prayers make the policy unconstitutional. He ruled that such prayers “display a preference for Christianity over other religions by the government” which is an unconstitutional establishment of religion. Beaty’s ruling says that the Forsyth policy “has resulted in Government-sponsored prayers that advance a specific faith or belief and have the effect of affiliating the Government with that particular faith or belief.” Forsyth County argued that censoring the prayers offered by citizens/clergy would result in an unconstitutional abridgement of those citizens’ First Amendment rights to free speech.
As CAL reported earlier, the federal lawsuit was filed in March, 2007 by three members of the Forsyth chapter of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, Janet Joyner, Constance Lynn Blackmon and Osborne Mauck. They are represented in the case by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of North Carolina. In April, 2007 the Forsyth County Commissioners voted 4-3 to fight the ACLU’s lawsuit, and they are represented in the case by attorney Mike Johnson of the Alliance Defense Fund.
The Forsyth County Commissioners’ prayer policy provides that the Clerk of the Board sends out a letter annually to all clergy in the County inviting them to voluntarily pray before a Board meeting “according to the dictates of [the leader’s] own conscience.” To comply with the U.S. Supreme Court’s rulings on prayer before public meetings, the letter “requests only that the prayer opportunity not be exploited as an effort to convert others to the particular faith of the invocational speaker, nor to disparage any faith or belief different than that of the invocational speaker” and to maintain a “spirit of respect and ecumenism.” The Clerk is instructed to make every reasonable effort to make sure a wide variety of clergy are included every year, but clergy members sign up on a first-come basis. The content of the prayer is to be left up to each clergy member and the prayer is to be offered before the official beginning of the meeting. The policy specifically states that it is not intended to express a preference or affiliation to any specific faith or religion.
The ACLU has attempted to bully counties and cities across North Carolina to retract their policies of allowing prayer before public meetings. Some have discontinued prayer before their public meetings without a lawsuit, and others have not. The City of Thomasville, Buncombe County, and Forsyth County are among those that have withstood the challenge.
The ruling was issued on January 27, 2010, and the County has thirty days to file an appeal. Federal Circuit Courts across the Country have differed on sectarian prayer, and the issue appears ripe for clarification from the U.S. Supreme Court.