Forsyth County Pre-Meeting Prayers are Unconstitutional, Says Judge

Forsyth County in North Carolina could owe about $100,000 in legal fees if a federal judge finds them liable for promoting Christianity at their regular meetings. All of this could’ve been avoided if they simply used their common sense and kept religion out of the government.

A federal magistrate has recommended that prayers referencing Jesus and other sectarian deities made before meetings of the Forsyth County Commissioners are unconstitutional.

The decision, by Magistrate Judge P. Trevor Sharp, was in favor of the American Civil Liberties Union, which filed the lawsuit against Forsyth County on behalf of Janet Joyner and Constance Blackmon, residents of Forsyth County who have attended commissioners’ meetings.

“The defendant’s prayer alienates those whose beliefs differ from Christian beliefs and divides citizens along religious lines,” said Katy Parker, one of the attorneys with the ACLU.

“The government has to remain neutral on matters of religion, and that’s what the Establishment Clause is all about — that the government can’t pick sides,” she said.

Other cities are sometimes allowed to get away with this because they invite people from several religious faiths and no faith at all — and all of them may only give a non-sectarian prayer, that is, no mention of one particular deity or another.

That wasn’t the case here, though. The magistrate’s decision is precise and blunt (PDF) in explaining how Jesus-centric Forsyth County prayers were:

The undisputed record shows that the prayers delivered at the outset of Board meetings from May 29, 2007 through December 15, 2008 referred to Jesus, Jesus Christ, Christ, or Savior with overwhelming frequency… No non- Christian deities are invoked… These prayers as a whole cannot be considered non- sectarian or civil prayer. They display a preference for Christianity over other religions by the government.

“Overwhelming frequency” means 26 out of 33 invocations contained a reference to Jesus or the like.

Again, this is an easy problem to fix.

Remove prayers before meetings.

You want to pray? Do it on your own time. You don’t need to force the rest of the city (or at least those who attend meetings) to do it with you. Why is that so damn difficult to comprehend?

But apparently, the requirement that religion be kept private is too much for these Christians to deal with. The Alliance Defense Fund (defending the county) has not yet released a statement on the matter as far as I can tell…

(Thanks to Michael for the link)

  • http://lagunatic.wordpress.com/ Lagunatic

    Maybe they ought to quit their jobs and work as bus drivers in Atlanta…it would cost the county less in the long run with the added potential benefit of someone smacking them silly one day.
    Ahhh, I dream,,,,I dream.

  • Valdyr

    Matthew 6:6 But thou, when thou prayest, enter into thy closet, and when thou hast shut thy door, pray to thy Father which is in secret; and thy Father which seeth in secret shall reward thee openly.

    JESUS DEMANDS AN EXPLANATION FOR NORTH CAROLINA’S BULLSHIT

  • Siamang

    I work in an office. We have multiple meetings a week. I’ve been a part of the working world for 20 years now.

    Never. In my life. Has a meeting begun with a prayer.

    What’s so hard about that?

  • http://krissthesexyatheist.blogspot.com krissthesexyatheist

    I hope this is the precedent for all the court cases to come, like the upcoming ones in super awesome Nor-Cal (ya I said super awesome). “H” were you a reporter in a (nonexistent) past life, great job once again.

    Kriss

  • Miko

    You want to pray? Do it on your own time. You don’t need to force the rest of the city (or at least those who attend meetings) to do it with you. Why is that so damn difficult to comprehend?

    Right on. But when most people realize that they can do what they want at the start of the meeting (or pre-meeting) without forcing everyone else to do so too, they’ll realize that the rest of the meeting isn’t necessary either. Name one thing that gets said or done at a city council meeting that doesn’t fall into the category of “forcing the rest of the city to do it with you.”

  • Alan E.

    Name one thing that gets said or done at a city council meeting that doesn’t fall into the category of “forcing the rest of the city to do it with you.”

    Punch and pie?

  • JohnFrost

    Holy crap, that’s the county next-door to me, and I hadn’t even heard of this!! Know any way we can get in contact with the Plaintiffs? I’d like to offer my support.

  • medussa

    What is wrong with these people?

    Even assuming they actually believe their prayers are important, they MUST know how rude, divisive and blatantly disrespectful they are being.
    Never mind illegal.

    Or were they all raised by families who didn’t know basic manners? Oh, right, like by christian families?

  • Sackbut

    Lagunatic wrote:

    Maybe they ought to quit their jobs and work as bus drivers in Atlanta

    Yeah, but then they’d get buses with atheist ads, and they’d refuse to drive the bus, and there would be more trouble.

  • http://lagunatic.wordpress.com/ Lagunatic

    Yeah, but then they’d get buses with atheist ads, and they’d refuse to drive the bus, and there would be more trouble.

    Nah…traffic already sucks in ATL – no one would even notice.

  • Vas

    I hope this is the precedent for all the court cases to come, like the upcoming ones in super awesome Nor-Cal

    What upcoming ones in super awesome Nor-Cal? Wasn’t this settled in in super bitchin’ So-Cal for all of Republic of Cal Uber Alles in Rubin vs. City of Burbank? i.e. no prayer to any specific gods no heavenly fathers or in the name of Jesus’ or in your names, stuff like that, I thought Cali was done with that. Case closed no deities need apply, Did something change this?

  • http://impoliteconversation.wordpress.com Jessa

    From the comments:

    I won’t judge, but I will say to hell with them all of them..

    *sigh*. Unfortunately, I live just a few counties away.

  • JohnFrost

    Holy crap, have you read the comments on that article? I’m ashamed to live in the Triad.

  • medussa

    Yeah, I read them, and I’d bet money that ALL the comments supporting the Separation of Church and State found the comment section through the Friendly Atheist, lol.

  • Joseph R

    I was surprised to hear about this on the news the other day. I work in Eastern NC and work for two towns of which I attend all of the board of commissioner meetings both of which are opened with prayers to Jesus, god, lord, savior, etc. etc. etc. I think opening meetings with christian prayer is pretty common for local gov’t. And yes, I do find it rather bothersome.

  • Michael

    JohnFrost: Your best bet is to contact the ACLU of NC and offer your support. Visit them at http://www.acluofnorthcarolina.org.

    What’s interesting is that the Alliance Defense Fund (ADF), counsel for Forsyth County, is advising the county to appeal the decision, but the county may not want to do so because they may be liable for attorney’s fees of well over $100,000 (what it’s at now) if they lose.

    Full disclosure: I am a former intern for and a member of the ACLU of NC.

    I attended the oral arguments for this case about three weeks ago in Greensboro and have been following this case since its beginning in 2007.

  • muggle

    This is what’s bound to happen when prayers are allowed at all — take over by the majority religion.

    I really don’t see how even nondenominational prayer can be allowed. It’s still excluding those of us who don’t believe in any of the nonsense or deities of any sort.

  • MLB

    I too have been following this case. Forsyth County is in line with all Supreme Court and Fourth Circuit caselaw. I can see from the pithy emails above, once again it’s attack the Christians. I wonder how many lawsuits have been filed against Islamic clerics, or protest in front of Mosques. Hey, in some countries, just criticizing a religion can get you jailed or executed. I can tell that most of you have no clue of what the law is on this issue. The First Amendment also protects those of us wishing to practice our faith. The fact is, and if you read the briefs submitted by counsel in this case, is that Forsyth County invites anyone from any denomination, Christian or not. Just because the majority of citizens in Forsyth County happen to be Christian, does not mean it was govt action in play. And let’s see, ACLU is the same organization that litigates to protect the rights of the organization that has a website that promotes sex between men and underage boys…yeah, ACLU, there’s a gleaming example of what I want my country to look up to. This country got its freedom to do what it wanted , and all we have gotten is a decaying moral society full of social ills. Don’t blame the Christians, take responsibility for your own misguided judgment calls. For me, I’ll stick with the Defendants, thank you very much.

  • http://www.eurovisionamerica.com Michael (SQFreak)

    MLB,

    Who’s invited to the meeting isn’t the operative question. The question is whether or not the government is endorsing religion, and to determine that, you look at the intent of the speaker and the message conveyed. Lynch v. Donnelly, 465 U.S. 668, 687-689 (1984) (O’Connor, J., concurring). Additionally, the Fourth Circuit case law says that prayers given by private individuals at government meetings can be government speech. Turner v. City Council of Fredericksburg, Va., 534 F.3d 352, 354 (4th Cir. 2008), cert. denied, 129 S.Ct. 909 (2009). (Interestingly, Justice O’Connor also wrote the opinion in Turner as a retired justice riding circuit.) And if the prayers are government speech and they’re endorsing a particular religion, we have an Establishment Clause problem under Supreme Court precedent.

    The issue here is that while Forsyth County may have invited everyone, that’s simply not good enough. They, as part of the meeting, held a prayer that endorsed a particular religion. They can’t do that, according to Magistrate Judge Sharp.

    You’re absolutely right that the First Amendment guarantees you the right to practice your faith. But it does not guarantee you the right to have the government practice your faith on your behalf. In fact, Congress cannot even pass a law that advances religion over non-religion. Texas Monthly v. Bullock, 489 U.S. 1 (1989). The right to practice your faith is not absolute either. When it comes in conflict with a neutral law of general applicability, the law wins out. Employment Division, Department of Human Resources v. Smith, 494 U.S. 872, 879 (1990).

    And your attack on the ACLU for defending NAMBLA’s right to speak is inapposite to the Establishment Clause issue at hand. But to quickly address the Free Speech Clause issue, once we start censoring speech because we find it to be “disgusting” or “immoral,” where does it stop? That’s difficult even with obscene materials, where we apply “contemporary community standards.” Miller v. California, 413 U.S. 15, 22 (1973). NAMBLA has their right to speak, and you have your right to disagree.

    I want my country to be free. If that means that sometimes I have to be exposed to things I don’t like or that people have the right to do things I disagree with, so be it. I will defend to the death your right to pray, but I will fight to the death government attempts to make me pray.


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