Jesus' Name Takes Hit In Ruling
Special Report - February 1, 2010
The future ability of local ministers in Forsyth County to offer prayers “in Jesus name” hinges on whether the county’s Board of Commissioners chooses to appeal a federal district court judge’s ruling, declaring the Board’s current prayer policy unconstitutional. In a decision issued January 28, U.S. District Judge James A. Beaty, Jr., agreed with the November 2009 recommendation of federal Magistrate Judge Trevor Sharp, who urged the district court to order the county to change or end its public prayer policy. In his decision, Judge Beaty ruled that the county’s public prayer policy, as written, violates the Establishment Clause of the U.S. Constitution, and enjoined the county from “continuing the policy as it is now implemented.” He gave the county the option of either ending public prayers before government meetings altogether, or changing it to a “nonsectarian” policy, which basically prohibits ministers from praying to specific deities. He also ordered that the plaintiffs “may pursue nominal damages, attorney’s fees and costs” that they have accrued since the lawsuit began in 2007.
As we’ve previously reported, the lawsuit, Joyner v. Forsyth County, is part of an ongoing campaign by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and its allies to pressure local governments into changing their public prayer policies. The ACLU-NC is challenging the prayer policy on behalf of two Winston-Salem residents, who allege that it 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 Alliance Defense Fund (ADF).
Judge Beaty acknowledged in his ruling that religious freedom is an important First Amendment right. “This Court honors and respects those rights that all citizens share to express their religious beliefs freely and to pray in the manner that each believer by his or her own faith may be led,” he wrote. “However, the present case does not involve any infringement of the private rights of citizens to Free Speech or Free Exercise of Religion. Instead, this case involves only the sole question of whether the Government has endorsed a particular belief or faith in violation of the Establishment Clause.” He agreed with Magistrate Judge Sharp’s contention that the prayers constitute “government speech,” noting that all of the prayers offered at commission meetings referenced the name of “Jesus.” Judge Beaty concluded, “that the invocation Policy, as implemented, 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.”
Mike Johnson, senior legal counsel for ADF, who is leading the county’s defense in the case, is urging the Forsyth County Board of Commissioners to appeal Judge Beaty’s ruling to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit. In a brief filed in November, objecting to the federal magistrate’s recommendations, ADF described Forsyth County’s policy as a “virtual gold standard of neutrality and inclusion,” noting that it allows religious leaders from every faith, including Muslims and Jews, to offer prayers. “By design and in actual practice, it expressly opens the door for participation of every organized religion in the country on an equal and rotating basis, and shows neither favoritism, nor hostility to any,” the ADF brief states. ADF also notes that the U.S. Supreme Court has previously ruled in Marsh v. Chambers that, “The content of the prayer is not of concern to judges, where, as here, there is no indication that the prayer opportunity has been exploited to proselytize or advance any one, or to disparage any other, faith or belief. That being so, it is not for us to embark on a sensitive evaluation or to parse the content of a particular prayer.” According to Mr. Johnson, ADF is winning similar battles over public prayers at government meetings across the nation, and he is confident that they can win in North Carolina as well. Forsyth County has until the end of February to decide whether to file an appeal.
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