Forsyth County asks court to drop ban on sectarian prayers

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FORSYTH COUNTY, N.C. — Forsyth County is asking a federal court to dissolve a 2010 injunction that stopped the county from allowing pastors to give invocations that had sectarian references at the start of public county meetings, according to the Winston-Salem Journal.

In a direct result of the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in a case involving the New York town of Greece, the county is making the case that the prayer policies the court found objectionable here are “strikingly similar” to the ones that the nation’s highest court found constitutional in Greece.

“The only way Forsyth County can comply with the injunction is to abandon what the Constitution permits or to do what the Constitution forbids,” the county is arguing.

County commissioners had been saying after the Supreme Court ruling that they would try to return to the county’s former practice of allowing clergy to pray freely at board meetings.

In Forsyth County, as in Greece, the debate was whether prayers with explicit Christian references had the effect of aligning the government with Christianity and were therefore an unconstitutional endorsement of a particular faith.

Forsyth County had a policy of allowing members of the clergy to volunteer to give the board’s opening invocation each month. The chance was open to any religious group, but citizens filing suit said that the effect was to endorse Christianity because an overwhelming majority of the prayers referred to Jesus Christ.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit, which includes North Carolina, agreed with the citizens filing suit and banned prayers with sectarian content.

In Greece, a town in upstate New York, town leaders had opened up the chance to give the invocation to any local clergy, which in practice resulted in most prayers being Christian. Like Forsyth County, the town had its practices stopped by the federal courts. Unlike Forsyth, the town had its case accepted on appeal to the Supreme Court, which ruled in favor of the town in May.

The nation’s high court said that Greece cannot “mandate a civil religion that stifles any but the most generic references to the sacred any more than it may prescribe a religious orthodoxy.” It said that ministers could deliver Christian prayers at meetings because the town had a policy of being inclusive to all faiths.

Because Forsyth County enacted a similar policy, the county now argues, the injunction must be dissolved.

Forsyth County Commissioner Gloria Whisenhunt called the county’s motion a “technicality” and predicted easy court approval, in light of the Supreme Court’s ruling in Greece.

“I anticipate that as soon as the court’s injunction is lifted, we will do what we have always done,” Whisenhunt said. “It is something the county has done traditionally for years.”

The county is getting help from the Alliance Defending Freedom, which carried the legal ball for the county during its prayer case and which also represented the town of Greece. The ADF had defended the county at no cost, although the county was required to foot the bill in the case of a legal defeat. The county owed a legal bill of $248,000 because of its loss, and paid it with money that a citizens’ group had raised in support of the county.

In this newest motion, Whisenhunt said, the ADF is donating its efforts. The county’s own paid legal staff is also taking part in the motion.

The N.C. affiliate of the American Civil Liberties Union, which represented the citizens who filed suit against the county, expressed dismay over the Supreme Court’s May ruling but has not announced whether it would contest the county’s effort to overturn the injunction.


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