Blog on the Run: Reloaded

Monday, November 9, 2009 4:28 pm

Judge: Forsyth County commissioners’ prayer unconstitutional

(via news release:)

WINSTON-SALEM – The American Civil Liberties Union of North Carolina Legal Foundation (ACLU-NCLF) and the Winston-Salem Chapter of Americans United for Separation of Church and State applauded a court ruling today by Magistrate Judge Trevor Sharp finding that the use of sectarian invocations to open official meetings of the Forsyth County Board of Commissioners violates the First Amendment to the United States Constitution. The lawsuit was filed on behalf of Janet Joyner and Constance Blackmon, longtime residents of Forsyth County who have attended meetings of the Forsyth County Board of Commissioners at which sectarian prayers were used and who object to this practice as a violation of the Constitutional rights of all residents of the County.

“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 Plaintiff Janet Joyner.  “I am very happy with the Court’s ruling today because our government is supposed to be inclusive of all Forsyth County residents.”

Judge Sharp’s ruling explains that the prayers that were used to open County Commissioners’ meetings “referred to Jesus, Jesus Christ, Christ, or Savior with overwhelming frequency,” and that such prayers “display a preference for Christianity over other religions by the government.”  Judge Sharp further explained that “Defendant’s prayer alienates those whose beliefs differ from Christian beliefs and divides citizens along religious lines.”  Existing case law under the U.S. Supreme Court and also the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals, which governs North Carolina courts, has held that government entities are constitutionally permitted to open their meetings with a prayer if – and only if – those prayers are nonsectarian, meaning the content of the prayer may not favor any particular religion nor disparage any particular religion.

This ruling almost certainly will be appealed, but the case law on this issue is pretty clear: Moment of silence = OK. Sectarian prayer = not so much.



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