No Need to Censor Legislative Prayers
Special Report - February 14, 2012
Despite threats from the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), the North Carolina General Assembly should continue its longstanding tradition of opening legislative sessions with uncensored prayer, according to a letter sent last week to Attorney General Roy Cooper from a Christian civil liberties group. The letter from the Alliance Defense Fund (ADF) is in response to the ACLU of North Carolina Legal Foundation’s February 2 letter to Attorney General Cooper, urging the General Assembly to “[halt] the practice of opening legislative sessions with sectarian invocations.” In its letter to Cooper, ADF acknowledges the July 2011 decision by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit, which upheld a lower court ruling that struck down the application of the Forsyth County Board of Commissioners’ prayer policy as unconstitutional. The U.S. Supreme Court recently declined to hear an appeal of the Fourth Circuit’s decision in the Forsyth County case.
The ADF letter notes that the Fourth Circuit’s decision “has introduced some unique limitations on the practice of legislative prayer,” but it goes on to point out that the appeals court struck down the policy for the way it was being applied in Forsyth County. “In other words, although the policy in Forsyth County was constitutional as written, a 2-1 majority of the court determined the manner in which the policy was ‘implemented’ was problematic,” the letter explains. “This decision reinforces the judicial principle that Establishment Clause challenges require careful, fact specific analysis.” The letter continues, “In Joyner, the Fourth Circuit reaffirmed that prayer before public meetings of deliberative bodies can be delivered without violating the Establishment Clause of the Constitution. The court thus made it clear that governmental bodies do not need to abandon the centuries-old tradition of legislative prayer.”
The ADF letter goes on to explain that the Fourth Circuit was concerned that the overwhelming majority of the prayers in Forsyth County were sectarian in nature, and mainly from one faith tradition (Christianity). “Although the majority determined that having eighty percent of the prayers make explicitly Christian references was too frequent absent the inclusion of prayers from other faith traditions, their decision should not be interpreted as requiring a blanket prohibition on sectarian references in legislative prayers,” the letter points out. “Each case will require a fact specific analysis.”
Additionally, the letter notes, “the Fourth Circuit is unique in mandating that legislative bodies must proactively discourage sectarian references in legislative prayer.” It states that the Fourth Circuit’s decision in the Forsyth County case “is clearly at odds with other federal courts that have evaluated the same issues. It is likely that some of the ambiguity remaining in the Fourth Circuit will eventually be resolved by the U.S. Supreme Court.”
The letter concludes by offering ADF’s legal services in the event of a lawsuit, and by emphasizing that “there is no reason for legislative bodies to abandon the tradition of including an invocation before their public meetings, nor is it necessary to prohibit all sectarian references.”
“The North Carolina General Assembly should keep doing what it has always done on the issue of prayer, which is to not censor prayer but to allow lawmakers or chaplains or invited ministers to pray according to their religious beliefs,” said Bill Brooks, president of the North Carolina Family Policy Council. “The General Assembly should ignore the letter from the ACLU, and if the ACLU chooses to file a lawsuit over the content of individual prayers, then lawmakers should fight the ACLU all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court if they have to do so in order to protect religious freedom, and the historic tradition in this state of opening legislative sessions in prayer, including prayer in Jesus name.”
ACLU Targets Prayer At Legislature - February 6, 2012
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