North Carolina County Asks Supreme Court To Hear Prayer Case

Officials in Forsyth County, N.C., have asked the U.S. Supreme Court to hear an appeal of a lower court ruling barring sectarian prayers before county commission meetings.

The Alliance Defense Fund (ADF), a Religious Right legal group that is representing the county, in October filed papers asking the high court to hear the case. Americans United for Separation of Church and State and the North Carolina ACLU are representing local citizens who oppose government-sponsored religion.

In court, AU and the ACLU argued that the Forsyth Board of Commissioners was impermissibly favoring Christianity. The record in the case indicated 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.

The 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled against the county in July in a 2-1 decision.

“Faith is as deeply important as it is deeply personal,” wrote Judge J. Harvey Wilkinson, “and the government should not appear to suggest that some faiths have it wrong and others got it right….[C]itizens should come to public meetings confident in the assurance that government plays no favorites in matters of faith but welcomes the participation of all.”

Under the ruling, the county is still permitted to open its deliberations with prayers, but they must be non-sectarian and non-denominational.

Mike Johnson, an ADF attorney, accused Americans United and the ACLU of favoring “censorship.” AU countered that the organization was working to ensure that government meetings are open and welcoming to all.

Ayesha N. Khan, Americans United’s legal director, told WXII-TV in Winston-Salem that she believes it is unlikely that the high court will hear the case. She called the county’s decision to seek another appeal “an exercise in futility.”

The Winston-Salem Journal called the decision to appeal the ruling “wrongheaded and potentially costly.”

“On the chance that the highest court in the land does choose to hear this case, we’ll have a good thought that the Constitution will prevail and the commissioners will finally have to give up this battle that would, in effect, give their government body the right to push Christianity on all,” observed the newspaper.