By Tami Fitzgerald
Christian Action League
Forsyth County Commissioners have taken steps to defend the right to pray in the name of “Jesus” by filing an appeal on Wednesday, February 24 of a U.S. District Court decision that prevents the Forsyth County Board of Commissioners from opening public meetings with prayer that may mention a particular deity. After a public meeting Monday, February 22 that attracted nearly 1,000 county residents in support of continuing the case, Commissioners voted 4-3to appeal to the U.S. Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals the decision of U.S. District Judge James A. Beaty.
Forsyth County Commissioners have been contemplating whether to appeal since Judge Beaty handed down his January 28 decision ordering the Commissioners to stop allowing prayer that is largely Christian before their meetings. Judge Beaty’s ruling held that the Forsyth prayer 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 [Christianity].” He ruled that the County’s prayer policy violates the First Amendment’s proscription against establishment of religion and ordered that the prayers cease. Forsyth County has maintained that censoring the prayers violates two other provision of the First Amendment—the free speech rights of the citizens who offer the prayers and their right to freely exercise their religions.
“America’s founders opened public meetings with uncensored prayer. Public officials should be able to do the same,” said Forsyth County’s attorney Mike Johnson. “Through their campaign of fear, intimidation, and disinformation, the ACLU and its allies continue their threats against hometown governments that they consider to be easy prey. Once again, though, they have failed.”
Board Chairman Dave Plyler was the swing vote in a decision that was split along party lines. Plyler and fellow Republicans Debra Conrad, Richard Linville and Gloria Whisenhunt voted to appeal the prayer case to the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals. Opposing them were Democrats Beaufort Bailey, Ted Kaplan and Walter Marshall.
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. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of North Carolina represents them in the case. Forsyth County Commissioners are represented in the case by the Alliance Defense Fund (ADF), a legal alliance of Christian attorneys and like-minded organizations dedicated to protect and preserve religious liberty, the sanctity of life, marriage, and the family. ADF is paying the County’s costs to litigate the case, but will not pay the attorneys fees for the ACLU in the event the County loses the case.
Plyler’s vote seemed to hinge on limiting the exposure the County would have for paying these legal costs and damages. A private community partnership committed $300,000 (including $55,000 it had raised earlier) toward paying the ACLU’s attorneys fees and damages should the county lose the appeal. The Partnership for Religious Liberty, led by Rev. Steve Corts who is the pastor of Center Grove Baptist Church in Clemmons, provided the County with a letter before yesterday’s meeting that certified the partnership would cover the costs of the appeal, which is estimates will not exceed $300,000.
The Partnership for Religious Liberty’s agreement with the County gives the County complete freedom to withdraw from the appeal, and the partnership will not have any control over the litigation. Nor will the partnership have any say on whether the county would appeal beyond the Fourth Circuit to the U.S. Supreme Court.
“We have witnessed an act of true courage by those four Forsyth Commissioners who voted to appeal the ruling of Judge Beaty and the citizens who made it possible by raising the money for the legal fees and damages,” Rev. Mark Creech, Executive Director of the Christian Action League, said. “A prayer given according to the dictates of the giver’s conscience is not an establishment of religion. This ruling violates the rights of pastors, who are citizens, to pray to the deity of their choice in the fashion of their choosing. Regulating the content of free speech is contrary to our American ideals of liberty and freedom and our history. We are hopeful that the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals will overturn this free-speech restricting ruling.”
The legal ramifications of the lawsuit in Forsyth County have influenced County Commissioners in Buncombe County, who were warned by their County Attorney in December that the Buncombe County prayer policy is similar to Forsyth’s prayer policy and the decision in Forsyth County could have an adverse affect on them. In early January, Buncombe County Commissioners decided to keep their prayer policy until the Forsyth case was resolved. After the U.S. District Court’s ruling in late January declaring Forsyth County’s prayer policy unconstitutional, Buncombe County Commissioners announced that they will end the policy of allowing local clergy to pray before their meetings and will take up the practice of offering the prayers themselves. Buncombe County Manager Wanda Greene said,” it will be “easier” to give commissioners rules on prayer that other public bodies follow than to try to tell ministers how to pray.
Rev. Mark Creech, Executive Director of the Christian Action League, lamented that, “Once again, religious liberty is restricted by the confines of those who believe in the myths of separation of church and state. By this recent decision,” he continues, “Buncombe County Commissioners have essentially said no one can pray at our public meeting but us and no prayer shall be prayed except that which meets our requirements. It is no real answer to the problem and only represents a continuous hostility to genuine religious freedom.”It
is no real answer to the problem and only represents a continuous hostility to genuine religious freedom