Federal Court Strikes Down Sectarian Prayers At Forsyth County, N.C., Commission

Watchdog Group Hails Decision Curbing Government Intervention In Religion

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.”

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 the Rev. 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.”

Thursday’s 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 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.

Americans United is a religious liberty watchdog group based in Washington, D.C. Founded in 1947, the organization educates Americans about the importance of church-state separation in safeguarding religious freedom.