Preferential Prayer Proscribed

Magistrate Says Sectarian Invocations At N.C. County Commission Meetings Are Unconstitutional

For many years, members of the Forsyth County Board of Commissioners in North Carolina have opened their meetings with invocations offered by guest clergy. Most of the time, the preachers would pray “in Jesus’ name” or include other overtly Christian content.

For some county residents, it never seemed right. Forsyth County, with a population of about 315,000, has become more diverse over the years – yet the local government was playing favorites with religion.

The Winston-Salem Chapter of Americans United worked with the AU national office and the American Civil Liberties Union of North Carolina to remedy the matter. The groups sent letters to local officials, requesting a change in policy.

But the pleas were to no avail.

Local officials dug in and refused to consider dropping or modifying the prayer policy. In April of 2007, litigation was filed with AU chapter members serving as plaintiffs.

At the time the lawsuit was filed, Janet Joyner, the lead plaintiff, told Americans United she does not oppose prayer – but that the decision to engage in any religious worship must come from the individual, not the government.

“For a Christian to presume to tell a Buddhist, Muslim, Jew or anyone in whose name to pray clearly crosses the line.” Joyner said. “For government to show preference or favoritism is against the law, and I expect my officials and our leaders, whether spiritual or political, to obey the law.”

Joyner and her fellow plaintiff Constance Blackmon won a key victory Nov. 9 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.

Some invocations went considerably beyond that. One delivered by the Rev. Robert Hutchens was a veritable sermonette. As Sharp noted, during the Dec. 17, 2007, invocation, Hutchens referred to himself as a “minister of the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ” and lauded the New Testament and “the cross of Calvary.” For good measure, he concluded the prayer in the name of “your son, Jesus Christ.”

Sharp saw invocations like this as evidence of government endorsement of religion.

“These prayers as a whole cannot be considered non-sectarian or civil prayer,” Sharp wrote. “They display a preference for Christianity over other religions by the government. The frequent references to Jesus Christ cause the prayers to promote one religion over all others, and thus the effect of these prayers is to affiliate the Board with a specific faith or belief.”

Sharp recommended that the U.S. District Court “enjoin the continuation of the Policy as it is now implemented.”

Americans United praised the magistrate’s action.

“The board of commissioners is elected to do the public’s business, not meddle in religious matters,” said AU Legal Director Ayesha N. Khan. “The Constitution gives government officials no authority whatsoever to prefer one faith over others.”

Joyner agreed.

“The prayers given at the invitation of the Forsyth County Commissioners at meetings that I have attended made me feel not just unwelcome, but coerced by my government into endorsing Christian prayer,” said Joyner. “I am very happy with the Court’s ruling today because our government is supposed to be inclusive of all Forsyth County residents.” 

Sharp’s recommendation now goes to U.S. District Judge James A. Beaty Jr., who will make a final ruling.

Religious Right groups were not pleased by Sharp’s opinion. The Alliance Defense Fund (ADF), a Religious Right legal group founded by television and radio preachers to erode church-state separation, represented the county in court. ADF attorney Mike Johnson told the Rocky Mount Telegram that he hopes Judge Beaty reaches a different conclusion.

Meanwhile, it’s business as usual at the Forsyth County Board of Commissioners. The Winston-Salem Journal reported that the commissioners met for a regularly scheduled meeting the day the opinion came down and that Teresa Forshee, pastor of the Faith Christian Center, delivered the invocation and mentioned Jesus twice.