NC Prayer Lawsuit Gets Hearing
Special Report - October 19, 2009
A federal judge in Greensboro heard arguments last week in a lawsuit challenging the Forsyth County Board of Commissioners’ policy of allowing various clergy members from the community to offer sectarian prayers before public meetings. U.S. District Court Judge Trevor Sharp heard from attorneys for both sides of the lawsuit, Joyner v. Forsyth County, but did not issue a ruling in a hearing held October 14. According to the Winston-Salem Journal, Judge Sharp asked for transcripts of the prayers offered at the meetings.
The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) is challenging Forsyth County’s prayer policy on behalf of two Winston-Salem residents, who allege that the policy is unconstitutional because it allows clergy members to pray to specific deities, such as in the name of Jesus. The ACLU filed the lawsuit in the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of North Carolina in March 2007, and the Forsyth County Board of Commissioners voted 4 to 3 in April 2007 to defend the policy with the help of the Alliance Defense Fund (ADF). According to the ACLU, the lawsuit is asking the court to do two things:
“(1) declare that the county’s allowance and sponsorship of sectarian prayers at meetings of the Forsyth County Board of Commissioners violates the First Amendment, and (2) enjoin the county from allowing sectarian prayers at Board of Commission meetings.”
As the North Carolina Family Policy Council (NCFPC) previously reported, the lawsuit is part of an ongoing campaign by the ACLU-NC and its allies to pressure local governments to change their public prayer policies. At least one county has succumbed to the attacks. After receiving a threatening letter from the ACLU-NC, the Yadkin County Board of Commissioners voted in 2007 to discontinue sectarian prayers. In a December 2006 letter to the Winston-Salem mayor and city council, the North Carolina Family Policy Council encouraged Forsyth County to continue its tradition of public prayer and noted that, “As long as it is offered by private individuals, the mere mention of God or Jesus Christ in a public prayer does not violate the Establishment Clause, especially where the practice (as in Winston-Salem) is to invite sectarians of varying religions to offer the prayer.”
Jere Royal, counsel for the North Carolina Family Policy Council, commented, “This is an important religious freedom case for North Carolina and the nation as a whole. The practice of opening government meetings with public prayer is a longstanding American tradition that has been sanctioned by the U.S. Supreme Court, and it deserves to be protected in North Carolina.”
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