Forsyth Saga: N.C. Challenge To Government Prayer Reaches Appeals Court

Government-led prayer in public contexts is often a spiritually empty exercise.

A courtroom in Richmond, Va., will be the site of a church-state showdown on Thursday. The 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals will hear oral arguments in an important case dealing with official prayer before government bodies. Americans United will be there.

The case, Joyner v. Forsyth County, goes back to 2007, when the North Carolina affiliate of the American Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit challenging the Forsyth County (N.C.) Commission’s practice of opening its meeting with invocations that were almost always Christian.

The plaintiffs include Janet Joyner and Constance Blackmon, two members of the local Americans United chapter. AU’s legal team is now serving as co-counsel in the case, and Ayesha N. Khan, AU’s legal director, will be in Richmond for the argument.

As my colleague Joe Conn put in a Church & State story that ran last year, “The acrimonious legal and political battle in Forsyth has become a microcosm of the ‘culture war’ under way in many communities across America. On one side are arrayed Religious Right groups, affiliated clergy and their congregations and politicians who support their agenda. Across the divide are civil liberties groups, progressive clergy, religious minorities and individual citizens who support church-state separation.”

The Alliance Defense Fund, a Religious Right legal outfit founded by a collection of radio and TV preachers, is representing the county. A local Southern Baptist pastor, the Rev. Steve Corts of Center Grove Baptist Church in Clemmons, has spearheaded efforts to raise money for the county’s legal defense, reportedly providing at least $300,000 so far.

Joyner and Blackmon won the first round in November of 2009 when U.S. Magistrate Judge P. Trevor Sharp issued a finding in Joyner v. Forsyth County that the county’s prayer policy violates the Constitution. Sharp pointed to the record in the case, which showed that 26 of the 33 invocations given from May 29, 2007, until Dec. 15, 2008, contained at least one reference to Jesus, Jesus Christ, Christ, Savior or the Trinity.

A few months later, U.S. District Judge James A. Beaty Jr. confirmed that ruling. Observed Beaty in his decision, “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. 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.”

Winston-Salem television station WXII interviewed both AU’s Khan and ADF attorney Mike Johnson about the case. Johnson mentioned the dispute’s possible national significance. Indeed, this is a case worth watching. Disputes like this are popping up around the country as more and more and citizens are standing up and saying they oppose the idea of the government presuming to pray on their behalf. In response, Religious Right groups are digging in, insisting that attempts to block government-sponsored prayer are an assault on tradition.

It’s a shame it has come to this. The First Amendment gives all Americans the right to seek spiritual guidance through prayer whenever they feel they need. Members of the Forsyth County Commission have this right and can exercise it on an individual basis – yet they insist on making a public governmentally endorsed display of their piety.

I’m no theologian, so I’ll defer to someone who is, my boss the Rev. Barry W. Lynn. In his 2006 book Piety & Politics, Lynn discussed government-led prayer in public contexts. He concluded that it is often a spiritually empty exercise.

“Corporate, formalized prayer by rote is meaningless as an expression of true religion,” Lynn observed. “No less than the founder of Christianity knew this. While Jesus did pray publicly at times, he never forced participation on anyone and reminded his followers that the purest religion comes in private.”

Obviously, I’m hoping that the 4th Circuit Court upholds the lower court and strikes down Forsyth’s prayer policy. But I’m also hoping that if this comes to pass, the people of Forsyth County will realize that government-sponsored prayer is not only a violation of the religious liberty rights of others but something of little value to true faith.