The Forsyth Saga

Battle Escalates Over Sectarian Prayers At North Carolina County Commission Meetings

For Steve Weston, the Feb. 22 session of the Forsyth County (N.C.) Board of Commissioners was deeply troubling.

Over 800 fired-up church-goers descended on the government center in Winston-Salem and quickly turned a public gathering into a fundamentalist religious service.

“They gave their personal testimonies,” Weston said. “They sang hymns, and some shouted, ‘If you don’t want to pray, just leave.’”

The show of religious force, coupled with behind-the-scenes political maneuvers, worked. The board voted 4-3 to appeal a federal court ruling against sectarian invocations at commissioners’ sessions.

“I was hopeful the commissioners would do the right thing,” said Weston, president of the Winston-Salem chapter of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, “but I’m not surprised that they didn’t. It all boiled down to local politics.”

All four Republicans on the commission voted to appeal Judge James H. Beaty’s decision that found officially sanctioned Christian prayers to violate church-state separation. Three Democrats voted against the move.

The swing vote was Chairman David Plyler, a moderate Republican.

Plyler had been on the fence for weeks and seemed to be leaning against taking the dispute to the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. He worried that the court costs could be a tremendous burden on taxpayers if the appeal is unsuccessful.

After the recent vote, Plyler told the Winston-Salem Journal that he had come “this close” – holding his fingers about an inch apart – to siding against an appeal.

“I don’t think we need to be in this suit,” he said, “but in politics you need to compromise and work together.”

Backroom negotiations seem to have played a role in the outcome of the vote.

The Rev. Steve Corts, a Southern Baptist minister who has spearheaded support for the commission’s overtly Christian prayers, committed to providing at least $300,000 in donated money to pay the county’s legal costs, if it loses on appeal.

Corts leads the Partnership for Religious Liberty, a group of Baptist clergy and their allies, that has agitated on behalf of sectarian invocations.

Pastor of the Center Grove Baptist Church in Clemmons, Corts had also issued a less-than-subtle political threat to Plyler. In a news conference, he said the wavering commission chairman should come down on the side of an appeal “because the political ramifications are going to be serious.”

The acrimonious legal and political battle in Forsyth has become a microcosm of the “culture war” under way in many communities across America. On one side are arrayed Religious Right groups, affiliated clergy and their congregations and politicians who support their agenda. Across the divide are civil liberties groups, progressive clergy, religious minorities and individual citizens who support church-state separation.

The conflict dates to 2007 when the North Carolina affiliate of the American Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit challenging the commission’s sectarian invocations. Plaintiffs included Janet Joyner and Constance Blackmon, two members of the local Americans United chapter.

“For a Christian to presume to tell a Buddhist, Muslim, Jew or anyone in whose name to pray clearly crosses the line.” Joyner said. “For government to show preference or favoritism is against the law, and I expect my officials and our leaders, whether spiritual or political, to obey the law.”

Joyner and Blackmon won a key victory last November when U.S. Magistrate Judge P. Trevor Sharp issued a finding in Joyner v. Forsyth County that the county’s prayer policy violates the Constitution. Sharp pointed to the record in the case, which showed that 26 of the 33 invocations given from May 29, 2007, until Dec. 15, 2008, contained at least one reference to Jesus, Jesus Christ, Christ, Savior or the Trinity.

On Jan. 28, Judge Beaty confirmed those findings and tried to make it clear that he was ruling against government preference for one faith over others, not infringing on religious free speech.

“This Court honors and respects those rights that all citizens share to express their religious beliefs freely and to pray in the manner that each believer by his or her own faith may be led,” Beaty wrote. “However, the present case does not involve any infringement of the private rights of citizens to Free Speech or Free Exercise of Religion. Instead, this case involves only the sole question of whether the Government has endorsed a particular belief or faith in violation of the Establishment Clause.”

Religious Right crusaders were not mollified by Beaty’s clarification. They continue to depict the decision as censorship and an expression of hostility toward Christianity.

Corts’ group has a Web site, dubbed “Let Us All Pray,” that features a photo of a young man with duct tape across his mouth.

The county commission is being represented in court by the Alliance Defense Fund (ADF), a mega-bucks Scottsdale, Ariz., legal group that enthusiastically feeds the erroneous notion that limits on government prayer are attacks on religion and religious liberty.

In February, ADF attorney Mike Johnson went on “Truth Talk Live,” a fundamentalist radio show, to blast the ACLU and “secular atheist-type organization allies like Americans United for Separation of Church and State.”

“If you do not oppose the ACLU right now in our day and in our generation on every one of these battlefields,” he blustered, “very soon you will not have the ability to speak the truth in public. You will not have the right to preach the gospel.”

Program host Stuart Epperson Jr., a Forsyth County resident, urged listeners to support the case and contribute to the ADF, an outfit founded by TV preachers and other religious broadcasters. Epperson’s wealthy family owns Salem Communications, a chain of evangelical Christian radio stations.

Some North Carolina observers think the Eppersons may be the deep pockets that helped enrich the Partnership for Religious Liberty’s bank account.

The Partnership has also drawn support from well-established Religious Right organizations, including the Christian Action League and the North Carolina Family Policy Council, the state affiliate of Religious Right behemoth Focus on the Family.

Advocates of church-state separation insist that the Religious Right is completely mischaracterizing the issues at stake, in a bid to inflame public opinion.

Americans United Legal Director Ayesha N. Khan says the lawsuit aims to do only one thing: require local government to stop promoting one faith over others.

“Government has no business offering sectarian prayers on behalf of a diverse community,” said Khan, who will be serving as co-counsel on the appeal. “The Constitution gives government officials no authority whatsoever to prefer one faith over others.”

Adds AU chapter leader Weston, “This is about constitutional limits on the tyranny of the majority. The Constitution protects religious minorities from government favoritism toward any one faith.

“We are in the South,” he continued, “and there doesn’t seem to be too much knowledge of our constitutional history and the sad history of persecution of religious minorities.”

Progressive clergy voices think government should stay out of religion.

Although much of the support for sectarian commission prayers comes from local Southern Baptist pastors and churches, one retired minister from that denomination took the opposite stance.

Speaking at the commission meeting Feb. 22, the Rev. Charles Wilson said Baptists should maintain their historic advocacy of church-state separation. (The Southern Baptist Convention dropped its support for separation after a fundamentalist faction took over in 1979.)

Said Wilson, “Every time a sectarian prayer is uttered in a government meeting, somebody else’s freedom is being denied.”

Charles Haynes, senior scholar at the First Amendment Center, said the Supreme Court invited the kind of bitter community fight seen in Forsyth when it upheld nonsectarian invocations in the Nebraska legislature in a 1983 decision. He says spiraling religious pluralism makes it virtually impossible to find a “nonsectarian” prayer – or prayer giver – that makes everyone happy.

“Generic prayers may have passed muster in the first Congress,” observed Haynes in a recent column, “but 200 years later, one prayer no longer fits all in the most religiously diverse country on the planet. Moreover, reducing prayers to the lowest common denominator should offend people of any faith – not to mention the growing numbers of Americans who have no religious affiliation.

“Instead of futile (and expensive) efforts to re-impose ‘in the name of Jesus,’” he continued, “Christians in Forsyth County who care about authentic prayer should urge the commissioners to start meetings with a moment of silence.

“In silence,” Haynes concluded, “people can pray (or not) as their conscience dictates. After all, the First Amendment right to choose in matters of faith is also a Christian principle – worthy of upholding in the name of Jesus.”

In the meantime, however, noise not silence is likely to be the order of the day, as the legal battle over Forsyth prayers continues.