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 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.
The County argued that its policy of inviting outside clergy to deliver the invocations meant that the government was staying neutral with regard to the prayers. However, the law in this jurisdiction clearly establishes that each and every prayer that opens a government meeting must be nonsectarian in order for the government to be truly neutral. Judge Sharp ruled that the County’s policy violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to the United States Constitution and concluded that the County should be ordered to end or change its current prayer policy.
"We are pleased today for our clients and all religious minorities in Forsyth County who have felt shut out and alienated by their own government because of its public stance in favor of Christianity," said ACLU-NCLF Legal Director Katherine Lewis Parker.
The case is called Janet Joyner, et al. v. Forsyth County, North Carolina, Case No. 1:07 cv 00243, and is pending in the Middle District of North Carolina. Katherine Lewis Parker, ACLU-NCLF Legal Director, is attorney of record for the Plaintiffs in this case.