Forsyth Co. Commissioners to lead non-sectarian prayers at meetings

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FORSYTH COUNTY, N.C. — Prayer is coming back to meetings of the Forsyth County Board of Commissioners, although there will be no mention of Jesus.

At the same time, the American Civil Liberties Union is trying to stop prayers before sessions of the North Carolina General Assembly that are “explicitly sectarian and favor only one religion, Christianity,” according to a letter sent from ACLU attorney Katherine Parker to N.C. Attorney General Roy Cooper on Thursday.

Forsyth County commissioners decided on Thursday that they will personally lead non-sectarian prayers at the start of future meetings, although board members will have the choice of offering a moment of silence or not praying at all.

That decision — reached by consensus rather than by a formal vote — comes in reaction to court rulings that in 2010 stopped the county from allowing clergy members to pray as they chose.

The 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in 2011 ruled in a 2-1 decision that the county’s prayer policy was in violation of the U.S. Constitution because the great majority of the prayers were Christian. The court concluded that the county was favoring Christianity at the expense of other faiths.

The Supreme Court declined to hear the county’s appeal of the decision last month, allowing the circuit court’s opinion to stand.

The same circuit court ruling is being cited by the ACLU in its letter to Cooper. Parker told Cooper that the ACLU had received complaints about the General Assembly’s “frequent practice of convening session with sectarian prayer,” and said Cooper should intervene to stop the practice.

“We are optimistic that the General Assembly is going to understand and know what the law is,” Parker said. She said the ACLU is prepared to sue, but doesn’t expect that to be needed.

Parker’s letter to Cooper asks him to respond to the ACLU request by Feb. 17.

The Alliance Defense Fund, which defended Forsyth County, has suggested a new prayer policy to county commissioners in light of the 4th Circuit ruling.

That policy, like the one under which the county was sued, would have allowed clergy to give prayers on a first-come, first-served basis. But it would also require the county to tell clergy that the courts have said that prayers must “strive to be nondenominational,” and that the county must “be proactive in discouraging sectarian references.”

The Alliance Defense Fund handled the county’s case as it made its way from federal district court up to the request for Supreme Court review. But since the county lost the case, the county is now responsible for paying the legal bills. A citizens group that formed to help defend the county — the N.C. Partnership for Religious Liberty — will defray the costs of the ACLU’s legal bill, estimated at around $200,000.

Although the Alliance Defense Fund is also offering to defend its revised policy if challenged in court, there were no takers on the county board on Thursday.

Commissioner Gloria Whisenhunt said she was against telling anyone how to pray:

“I could never invite anyone here to pray, and meet them at the door and tell them how to pray,” she said. “That is insulting.”

NOTE: This article was written by Wesley Young and originally appeared in the Winston-Salem Journal.