Forsyth Appeal Decision Pending
Special Report - February 19, 2010
The Forsyth County Board of Commissioners is scheduled to decide this Monday, February 22 whether or not to appeal a federal district court ruling that declared the Board’s public prayer policy unconstitutional. As we previously reported, U.S. District Judge James A. Beaty, Jr., ruled on January 28 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.” The Alliance Defense Fund (ADF)the public interest law firm that is leading the county’s defense of the policy free-of-chargeis urging the Forsyth County Board of Commissioners to appeal Judge Beaty’s ruling to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit.
ADF has 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 prayer. According to ADF, 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.”
Forsyth County’s prayer policy is being challenged by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of North Carolina on behalf of two Winston-Salem residents, who allege that it is unconstitutional because it allows various clergy members from the community to pray to specific deities, such as “in the name of Jesus.” The lawsuit, Joyner v. Forsyth County, began in 2007 and is part of an ongoing campaign by the ACLU and its allies to pressure local governments into changing their public prayer policies.
Although ADF is representing the county at no cost, in the event that the county loses the appeal, the county would have to pay the legal costs accrued by the plaintiffs and their attorneys since the case began. Earlier this month, the North Carolina Partnership for Religious Liberty announced that it has raised at least $100,000 in pledges from private donors to help the county with the cost of the appeal.
Local governments across North Carolina have been watching the Forsyth County prayer case. In related news, the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners recently changed their public prayer policy and will no longer allow clergy members to give the invocation at the beginning of public meetings. According to the Asheville Citizen-Times, County Manager Wanda Greene made the announcement at a board meeting on February 16, noting that going forward, commissioners will lead the invocation.
“The Forsyth County prayer case has far-reaching implications for the prayer policies of local governments across our state, and whether those governmental bodies can continue to allow the long-standing, constitutional tradition of inviting various religious leaders from the community to offer sectarian prayers, including prayer ‘in Jesus Name,’ prior to public meetings,” noted Jere Royall, legal counsel for the North Carolina Family Policy Council. “We hope the Board of Commissioners in Forsyth County will appeal this latest decision and continue to defend their public prayer policy.”
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