Forsyth County working to remove court order on prayer policy
FORSYTH COUNTY, N.C. — The Forsyth County commissioners opened their Monday meeting with a moment of silence, but soon clergy again could be delivering the opening invocation.
The commissioners voted unanimously to authorize County Attorney Davida Martin to pursue dissolving the court order that prohibited the commissioners from practicing their former prayer policy.
The board plans to review its prayer policy at an agenda briefing on May 22, as Chairman Richard Linville recommended. Martin said she hopes to have an update by then about the progress with the court order.
The commissioners used to invite clergy from various faith traditions to give the open invocation at meetings, but that stopped in 2010 when a federal judge issued an injunction prohibiting the board from allowing sectarian prayer in meetings.
The commissioners lost an appeal and chose not to ask clergy to deliver prayers with nonspecific references to God.
The U.S. Supreme Court ruled last week in the Town of Greece v. Galloway that the New York town did not violate the Constitution by allowing ministers to deliver Christian prayers at meetings, since the town had an inclusive invitation policy.
Martin said Forsyth County’s policy is virtually identical to that of Greece, so it will be on that basis that she argues to the court that the order should be dissolved and the county allowed to move forward with its policy.
The meeting was sparsely attended, but two local Baptist ministers spoke during the public comment session. They encouraged the commissioners to bring back prayer in Jesus’ name.
“The freedom to pray in the name of the Lord Jesus is a historic fact in this country,” said the Rev. Jeff Baity of Berean Baptist Church.
Pastor Robert Hutchens of Meadowview Baptist Church thanked the board for taking a stand for prayer.
“I always felt like the entire issue was about one thing, and that was taking my liberty away from me as a citizen to come to a government meeting that is paid for my tax money and to pray a biblical prayer, not to pray a politically correct prayer,” Hutchens said, going on to talk about the importance of praying in Jesus’ name.
Both said afterward that they do not have a problem with the board having an inclusive policy, but that they should have the right to pray in Jesus’ name.
Baity said after the meeting that the board is trying to proceed with caution but that he saw no real reason to delay anything in light of the Supreme Court’s ruling.
Commissioner Gloria Whisenhunt asked Martin how long it would take to get the injunction removed, but Martin said she would not know until she talked to the other parties that were involved in the lawsuit several years ago.
“Hopefully we’ll get full cooperation and be able to move through it very quickly,” Martin said.
Commissioner Bill Whiteheart asked if the county could seek reimbursement for the $300,000 raised by the faith community to pay for the county’s legal defense, but Martin said no.
She said the decision was consistent with the law of the Fourth Circuit at that time.
Commissioner Walter Marshall spoke again about the need to be inclusive and to not enforce a dominant religion.
He also asked how the board would proceed if someone crossed the line with their prayer.
“The policy itself will be inclusive of all faiths,” Martin said.
She said the Supreme Court was clear that there should be no efforts to proselytize or put down another faith.
Marshall said after the meeting that he voted in favor of the action on Monday night because he wants to see what kind of policy the board will create.