By M.H. Cavanuagh
Christian Action League
November 21, 2014
WINSTON-SALEM – Thursday, U.S. District Judge James A. Beaty lifted an order against the prayer policy of Forsyth County Commissioners. In 2010 the Commissioners were banned from allowing pre-meeting prayers offered in the name of Jesus Christ or other gods. Judge Beaty’s ruling is commensurate with a U.S. Supreme Court ruling; Town of Greece v. Galloway, which determined sectarian prayers were in line with a long national tradition as long as the prayers didn’t denigrate non-Christians or proselytize.
Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), which represented Forsyth County, asked the District Court to lift its order based on the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling.
“All Americans should have the liberty to pray without being censored, just as the Supreme Court found only a few months ago, and we are delighted to see this freedom restored in Forsyth County,” said ADF Senior Counsel Brett Harvey. “The Supreme Court affirmed the freedom of Americans to pray according to their consciences before public meetings. For that reason, the district court was right to lift its previous order against Forsyth County’s prayer policy, which is clearly constitutional.”
The Forsyth County Commissioners’ prayer policy had required that the Clerk of the Board send 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.” In order to comply with the U.S. Supreme Court’s rulings on prayer before public meetings, the letter requested 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 was also instructed to make every reasonable effort to make certain a wide variety of clergy were included annually and that clergy members sign up on a first-come basis. The content of the prayer was to be left to the discretion of each clergy member and the prayer was to be offered before the official beginning of the meeting. The policy specifically stated that it was not intended to express a preference or affiliation to any specific faith or religion.
Nevertheless, the American Civil Liberties Union and Americans United for the Separation of Church and State sued Forsyth County’s Commissioners on behalf of three people who claimed they were offended by clergy delivering prayers in the name of Jesus. Their suit demanded the county prohibit “references to Jesus Christ, or any other sectarian deity, as a part of their prayers.”
In January of 2010, Judge Beaty ruled that the prayers offered before the Forsyth County Commissioners displayed a preference for Christianity over other religions by the government, which he contended were an unconstitutional establishment of religion. Beaty’s ruling declared that the Forsyth policy resulted in Government-sponsored prayers that advanced a specific faith or belief and had the effect of affiliating the Government with that particular faith or belief.
In February 2010, Commissioners voted 4-3 to appeal to the U.S. Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals the decision by U.S. District Judge Beaty. In July of 2011, the liberal Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld Judge Beaty’s ruling. Forsyth Commissioners voted 6-1 to appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court in August of 2011, but in January of 2012 the U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear the case. Nevertheless, in May of this year the U.S. Supreme Court affirmed in Town of Greece v. Galloway, a case very similar to the Forsyth County case, that Americans are free to pray according to their beliefs at public meetings, clearing the way for uncensored prayer to rebound in Forsyth County.
The U.S. Supreme Court ruling rejected the contention “that legislative prayer may be addressed only to a generic God” and determined it was unconstitutional to limit the way that people pray.
“Our tradition,” ruled the High Court, “assumes that adult citizens, firm in their own beliefs, can tolerate and perhaps appreciate a ceremonial prayer delivered by a person of a different faith.”
Jeff Baity, of the Berean Baptist Church in Winston Salem, told WGHP Fox 8 News he was very glad the ACLU had not prevailed in the matter. “Our main concern,” he said, “was that Christians be allowed to pray in the name of Jesus Christ, which was the argument that the ACLU seemed to be threatening us of taking away. We’re very glad that they didn’t.”
Mark Baker, a Forsyth County Commissioner also told Fox 8 News that he believes based on the fact that Judge Beaty has lifted his own injunction, he’s saying the Commissioners’ policy is a good policy the way it is and that they should just be careful how they go forward.
Dr. Mark Creech, executive director of the Christian Action League said the latest ruling by the courts is a great victory for people of all faiths who love religious freedom. “I believed that the previous rulings were a repression of religion and its positive influences on our culture. I was concerned those decisions would lead to the ascent of atheistic dogmas, threatening to reduce us as a nation to a fraction of what we were. But I hope we can all see in this situation that the wheels of justice often turn slowly. We must never give up the fight and be willing to pay whatever the cost for a righteous cause. Forsyth County and its Commissioners never gave up and religious liberty has prevailed,” he said. “In this, they have provided an invaluable service to both our state and nation and we should be grateful,” he added.