By L.A. Williams, Correspondent
Christian Action League
August 21, 2014
WINSTON-SALEM — Some seven years after being sued for allowing clergy members to pray however they saw fit prior to meetings and months after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of such prayer, the Forsyth County Board of Commissioners is still under attack from the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) over the issue. The organization known for its hostility to religious expression in the public square is fighting the board’s request to have lifted a 2010 injunction that prevents uncensored prayer. Commissioners filed their request after the High Court ruled 5-4 last spring that the policy in place in Greece, N.Y., which is very similar to that of Forsyth County, was constitutional.
While he admitted that the Town of Greece was a significant case, Chris Brook, the NC-ACLU’s legal director who filed a brief Aug. 12 opposing the board’s request, told The Winston-Salem Journal that it did not give legislative bodies “carte blanche to engage in any prayer practice they choose.”
But attorneys with Alliance Defending Freedom, who is helping with the case, say it’s clear that the Supreme Court ruling does at least three things: “preserves the nation’s public prayer tradition, protects the freedom of community volunteers to pray according to their faith in a public setting without censorship and defends the prayer giver’s freedom of speech over an ‘offended’ person’s demands for censorship.”
“The Supreme Court has now made clear that it’s not the government’s job to censor the way people pray, so an injunction that mandates generic prayers needs to be changed,” Brett Harvey, ADF senior counsel, told the media. “We think it needs to be lifted altogether.”
The county policy called for prayer to be offered by “an eligible member of the clergy or a religious leader,” and involved the board clerk assembling a list of congregations “with an established presence” in the county from which to seek volunteers. The prayers, which as a result of the area’s demographics wound up being offered most often by Christians, many of whom prayed in Jesus’ name, offended Janet Joyner and Constance Blackmon, who initially sued. In 2010, a judge’s injunction put an end to that policy, after which commissioners have either called for a moment of silence or prayed using only the most generic references to God.
“It has been ridiculous how the injunction has infringed on the rights of board members, the clergy and others,” said Dr. Mark Creech, executive director of the Christian Action League.
In the most recent Supreme Court ruling, Justice Anthony Kennedy made it clear that boards should not have to go to extremes to ensure that prayers do not offend members of the public.
“Offense … does not equate to coercion,” he wrote in the Greece, N.Y. opinion. “Adults often encounter speech they find disagreeable; and an Establishment Clause violation is not made out any time a person experiences a sense of affront from the expression of contrary religious views in a legislative forum, especially where, as here, any member of the public is welcome in turn to offer an invocation reflecting his or her own convictions.”
Even so, the ACLU’s Brook complained that the Forsyth policy “favors some religious denominations over others as well as believers over nonbelievers.”
“I’m not sure who a nonbeliever would want to pray to in the first place, so I don’t know how the Board of Commissioners could have ensured atheists’ participation in the pre-meeting prayers to begin with,” Dr. Creech said. “The bottom line is that the High Court ruling should apply, and the ACLU should move on out of the way so the Forsyth Board of Commissioners can get back to business.”