Prayer ban lifted for Forsyth County Commissioners meetings

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FORSYTH COUNTY, N.C. -- For the first time since 2010, prayer is allowed before Forsyth County Commissioners meetings.

This comes after Judge James A. Beaty Jr. ruled that the commissioners can return to their former policy of allowing the prayer; however, there are some new rules.

An injunction was filed in 2010, which barred the county from allowing clergy to pray before the meetings. The majority of the prayers were being said in the name of Jesus Christ.

"Our main concern was that Christians be allowed to pray in the name of Jesus Christ, which was the argument that the ACLU seemed to be threatening us of taking away. We're very glad that they didn't," said Jeff Baity, of the Berean Baptist Church in Winston-Salem.

Judge Beaty based his ruling off of a Supreme Court decision in a similar case in Greece, N.Y., where a 5-4 decision ruled that the town did not violate the Constitution of the United States by allowing prayer in their meetings. They were found not to be in violation because their policy did not discriminate against minority religions and non-believers.

Forsyth County asked that the injunction be dissolved because their policy was similar in nature.

"The town of Greece decision recently from the Supreme Court changed the law in this area and what you heard today in court was that everybody agrees that the law changed," said Chris Brook, legal director for the ACLU of North Carolina, which represented the plaintiffs.

Judge Beaty laid down some guidelines for the county, saying their policy needs to also be inclusive and that people of all religious beliefs, including non-believers, be invited to speak at the beginning of the meetings.

This would mean that atheists also must be included when considering speakers.

"That assumes that there is an established place of worship for these atheists. Atheists are free to worship. Freedom of speech applies to them, too," said Baity.

"We'll have to wait and see what the options are for the new board and what their wisdom and decision making will be," said Forsyth County Commissioner Bill Whiteheart, of the revisions to the county policy.

However, when we asked if the majority of speakers would be preaching in the name of Jesus Christ, Whiteheart said, "Just by the sheer mathematical percentages of the cultural religious makeup of Forsyth County, I think you could expect that to be fact."

"I think by the fact that the judge lifted the injunction, he's saying that our policy is a good policy the way it is and just be careful how we go forward," said Mark Baker, also a Forsyth County Commissioner.

"He very clearly advised them that there was some revising to their policy that needs to be done. We hope that they take that seriously and we'll certainly be monitoring to ensure that they do," said Brook.

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