Federal Court Strikes Down Sectarian Commission Prayers In North Carolina

A federal court has struck down a North Carolina county’s policy of opening board meetings with sectarian prayers.

U.S. District Judge James A. Beaty held that the Forsyth County Board of Commissioners’ preference for Christian prayers violates the constitutional separation of church and state.

Observed Beaty, “[T]he prayers offered in the implementation of the Policy here did not reflect diversity and inclusiveness, and instead were divisive and had the effect of affiliating the Government with one particular belief.”

Beaty ruled that the county’s practice ran afoul of the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause, which prohibits government from endorsing or supporting religion.

“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,” Beaty wrote. “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.”

Plaintiffs in the Joyner v. Forsyth County lawsuit are Janet Joyner and Constance Lynn Blackmon, two county residents and members of the Winston-Salem Chapter of Americans United for Separation of Church and State.

Americans United hailed the judge’s ruling.

“Government has an obligation to represent people of all faiths and none,” said Barry W. Lynn, Americans United executive director. “Forsyth County ran afoul of that standard with its prayer policy, and we’re glad the court put a stop to it.”

The Jan. 28 decision confirms a finding issued Nov. 9 by U.S. Magistrate Judge P. Trevor Sharp. In his finding, Sharp noted that the government-sponsored invocations at board meetings are overwhelmingly Christian in character, alienating those with non-Christian beliefs and dividing citizens along religious lines. 

Sharp pointed out that the record in the case indicates 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.

Americans United Legal Director Ayesha N. Khan said the ruling is an important reminder that government must not meddle in religious matters.

“Government has no business offering sectarian prayers on behalf of a diverse community,” Khan said. “This ruling should serve as an important reminder to other towns, cities and counties to make sure their policies are in accord with the Constitution.”

The Forsyth County litigation was handled by the American Civil Liberties Union of North Carolina in collaboration with attorneys from Americans United.

The Winston-Salem Journal reported in February that during its first meeting after the ruling, a commissioner called for a moment of silence.

“I will ask for a moment of silence and then ask a member of the board of commissioners to proceed with the Pledge of Allegiance,” Commissioner Dave Plyler, who serves as chairman, said. “That would be in keeping with the judge’s order.”

Commissioners are considering appealing Beaty’s decision but are worried about mounting legal fees. The Alliance Defense Fund, a Religious Right legal organization, is representing the county for free, but the commissioners would have to pay the plaintiffs’ legal expenses if the county loses in court again. Those fees currently stand at $100,000 and could rise to $200,000 during an appeal.

The Journal reported that Plyler “is considered the swing vote on a board that is otherwise evenly split between those who would appeal Beaty’s order and those who would let the matter drop. Plyler says he is willing to appeal if citizens backing the county’s prayer policy agree in writing to pay any legal bills.”

Steve Weston, president of the Winston-Salem Chapter of Americans United, said he hopes the county lets the matter drop.

“We feel that we have done pretty much all that we can do,” Weston remarked. “It is in the hands of the county commissioners, and it is their responsibility at this point. We have always been concerned about the tyranny of the majority and that is what the First Amendment is set up to avoid.”