Court Says No Prayer in Jesus' Name
Special Report - August 2, 2011
On Friday, a federal appeals court upheld a lower court ruling that prohibits Forsyth County, North Carolina, from opening its public meetings with prayers that promote a specific faith. The three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit, heard arguments in the important religious freedom case, Joyner v. Forsyth County, earlier this summer. The case involves a lawsuit filed against Forsyth County in 2007 by the American Civil Liberties Union of North Carolina (ACLU-NC) and Americans United for the Separation of Church and State on behalf of three Winston-Salem residents, who claim that the county’s prayer policy, which allows sectarian prayers by local clergy before county commission meetings, violates the Establishment Clause of the U.S. Constitution. The Alliance Defense Fund (ADF) is representing the Forsyth County Board of Commissioners in the lawsuit. In January 2010, U.S. District Judge James A. Beaty, Jr., ruled that the county’s public prayer policy violates the Establishment Clause and enjoined the county from “continuing the policy as it is now implemented.” The Forsyth County Board of Commissioners voted in February 2010 to allow ADF to continue defending the prayer policy and to appeal Judge Beaty’s decision to the Fourth Circuit.
In its 2 to 1 decision issued July 29, 2011, the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the district court’s ruling, concluding that it “accords with both Supreme Court precedent and our own” The appeals court went on to note, “Sectarian prayers must not serve as the gateway to citizen participation in the affairs of local government. To have them do so runs afoul of the promise of public neutrality among faiths that resides at the heart of the First Amendment’s religion clauses.” While the appeals court acknowledged in the ruling that Forsyth County’s public prayer policy is “neutral,” it ultimately concluded that the policy “falls short.” According to the majority opinion, “It resulted in sectarian invocations meeting after meeting that advanced Christianity and that made at least two citizens feel uncomfortable, unwelcome, and unwilling to participate in the public affairs of Forsyth County. To be sure, citizens in a robust democracy should expect to hear all manner of things that they do not like. But the First Amendment teaches that religious faith stands on a different footing from other forms of speech and observance. Because religious belief is so intimate and so central to our being, government advancement and effective endorsement of one faith carries a particular sting for citizens who hold devoutly to another.”
In his dissent from the majority’s 2 to 1 opinion, Judge Paul V. Niemeyer wrote, “the majority has dared to step in and regulate the language of prayerthe sacred dialogue between humankind and God. Such a decision treats prayer agnostically; reduces it to civil nicety; hardly accommodates the Supreme Court’s jurisprudence in Marsh v. Chambers; and creates a circuit split [with the 11th Circuit]. Most frightfully, it will require secular legislative and judicial bodies to evaluate and parse particular religious prayers under an array of criteria.” Judge Niemeyer continued, “I respectfully submit that we must maintain a sacred respect of each religion, and when a group of citizens comes together, as does the Forsyth County Board of Commissioners, and manifests that sacred respect, allowing the prayers of each to be spoken in the religion’s own voice, we must be glad to let it be.”
In response to the appeals’ court ruling, ADF released a statement, noting that the decision conflicts with other federal court rulings involving public sectarian prayer, including a July 2011 decision upholding Lancaster, California’s invocation policy. ADF attorneys plan to meet with the Forsyth County Board of Commissioners to decide whether to appeal the federal appeals court’s decision to the U.S. Supreme Court. “America’s founders opened public meetings with prayer. There’s no reason that today’s public officials should be forced to censor the prayers of those invited to offer them simply because secularist groups don’t like people praying according to their own conscience,” said ADF-allied attorney, Mike Johnson, who argued before the 4th Circuit. “The legal team will confer with the county about the process of appealing today’s decision.”
Forsyth Prayer Policy Gets Hearing - May 11, 2011
NCFPC Supports Prayer Policy - June 14, 2010
Forsyth Commissioners Vote to Appeal - February 23, 2010
Jesus' Name Takes Hit In Ruling - February 1, 2010
Appeals Court Upholds Sectarian Prayers at Public Meetings - October 31, 2008
Prayer Lawsuit Filed Against Forsyth County - April 4, 2007
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