The Forsyth Saga, Final Chapter

Supreme Court Refusal Brings Long-Running North Carolina Prayer Dispute To A Happy Ending

When Janet Joyner and Constance Blackmon won a legal dispute in which they challenged sectarian prayers that had been used to open government meetings in Forsyth County, N.C., it didn’t go down the way it does in courtroom dramas. There was no big celebration after the decision, and no media swarm on the courthouse steps.

Their lawsuit, Joyner v. Forsyth County, generated headlines nationwide and pitted powerful Religious Right forces against civil liberties activists for more than three years, but it came to a pretty quiet end on Jan. 17. That day, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear arguments in the case, which meant that the dispute was finally over. It also meant that Americans United and the American Civil Liberties Union of North Carolina had earned a major win in the battle for church-state separation.

“Of course I am pleased that the ruling of the lower courts was upheld,” Joyner said. “Hopefully, people will abide by the law.”

Blackmon, the other plaintiff, told Church & State that she feels “tremendous relief” now that the case is over.

It all started in April 2007, when Joyner and Blackmon, two members of the Winston-Salem chapter of Americans United, filed a lawsuit challenging the Forsyth County Board of Commissioners’ practice of opening its meetings with invocations that were almost always Christian.

When the case was filed, lead plaintiff Joyner told Americans United that she did not oppose prayer – but that the decision to engage in worship has to come from individuals, not the government.

“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.”

According to court records, there was quite a bit of favoritism on the part of Forsyth officials. From May 29, 2007, through Dec. 15, 2008, 26 of the 33 invocations offered by guest clergy to open meetings contained at least one reference to Jesus, Jesus Christ, Christ, Savior or the Trinity.

Some of the invocations went even further, as exemplified by one given by the Rev. Robert Hutchens on Dec. 17, 2007. He lauded the New Testament and “the cross of Calvary,” according to court documents. He concluded what essentially amounted to a mini-sermon by saying his words were in the name of “your son, Jesus Christ.”

“The speaker of an invocation [at a government meeting] isn’t speaking as a private person,” Joyner told Church & State recently. “He’s speaking for a group collectively. In this case, it was government-sponsored speech and that has limitations.”

This case is the sort of thing that attracts the Religious Right like teenage girls to a Justin Bieber concert, so the Alliance Defense Fund (ADF), an Arizona-based legal organization founded by a collection of radio and TV preachers, represented Forsyth County. A local Southern Baptist pastor, the Rev. Steve Corts of Center Grove Baptist Church in Clemmons, spearheaded efforts to raise money for the county’s legal defense, reportedly providing at least $300,000.

The ADF’s resources weren’t enough to convince a judge to side with them, however, and Joyner and Blackmon won the first round in November 2009 when U.S. Magistrate Judge P. Trevor Sharp issued a finding that the county’s prayer policy violates the Constitution.

“These prayers as a whole cannot be considered non-sectarian or civil prayer,” Sharp concluded. “They display preference for Christianity over other religions by the government. The frequent references to Jesus Christ cause the prayers to promote one religion over all others, and thus the effect of these prayers is to affiliate the Board with a specific faith.”

A few months later, U.S. District Judge James A. Beaty Jr. confirmed that ruling, giving the plaintiffs another win.

Observed Beaty in his decision, “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. 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.”

The ADF and its allies weren’t ready to give up just yet, so they appealed that decision, though not without some discussion. The Forsyth Board of Commissioners voted 4-3 to appeal the case.

The chairman and swing vote on the board, Dave Plyler, initially expressed ambivalence, stating that he did not believe the legal fight was necessary. Ultimately, however, he cast his vote in favor of moving forward with the appeal after groups promised to shoulder the costs.

The Winston-Salem Journal reported that Plyler’s decision garnered lots of support – but not all community residents were pleased. One meeting attendee, retired Southern Baptist pastor Charles Wilson (and now president of the local AU chapter), spoke out against Forsyth’s decision.

“Every time a sectarian prayer is uttered in a government meeting, somebody else’s freedom is being denied,” he said, according to the Journal.

On July 29, 2011, the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the county’s prayer practice was unconstitutional, dealing the Religious Right forces yet another loss.

“Legislative prayer must strive to be nondenominational so long as that is reasonably possible – it should send a signal of welcome rather than exclusion,” wrote Judge J. Harvey Wilkinson. “It should not reject the tenets of other faiths in favor of just one. Infrequent references to specific deities, standing alone, do not suffice to make out a constitutional case.

“But legislative prayers that go further – prayers in a particular venue that repeatedly suggest the government has put its weight behind a particular faith – transgress the boundaries of the Establishment Clause,” Wilkinson continued. “Faith is as deeply important as it is deeply personal and the government should not appear to suggest that some faiths have it wrong and others got it right.”

ADF attorney Mike Johnson insisted in a press statement that the 4th Circuit’s ruling was misguided and accused Americans United and the ACLU of censorship.

“America’s founders opened public meetings with prayer,” Johnson said. “There’s no reason that today’s public officials should be forced to censor the prayers of those invited to offer them simply because secularist groups don’t like people praying according to their own conscience.”

Johnson is wrong. America’s founders did not always open public meetings with prayers. There were no official prayers, in fact, during the most important governmental meeting ever – the Constitutional Convention.

When prayers are offered during government meetings, Americans United argues that officials must bear in mind that they represent a diverse constituency of people from many religious groups as well as those of no particular faith. For this reason, Americans United recommends that government bodies either use no official invocations or open with a moment of silence.

Under this policy, members of a government body would be free to pray on their own as guided by conscience but would not presume to pray on behalf of an entire community, state or nation. If a municipality insists on opening with prayer, the courts have mandated that their entreaties be inclusive and ecumenical, not sectarian and divisive.

Forsyth County officials just couldn’t seem to get the message, and they appealed to the Supreme Court, which finally ended this lengthy legal confrontation.

Americans United celebrated a hard-won victory when the Court’s decision was announced.

“I was delighted, but not surprised, that the court turned down the case,” Americans United Legal Director Ayesha N. Khan, who was an attorney for the plaintiffs, told Church & State. “The appeals courts are coalescing around the view that legislative bodies cannot present prayers that are overwhelmingly unique to a single religion. Given this emerging consensus, there was simply no reason for the high court to step in.”

AU’s Winston-Salem chapter president Wilson expressed a similar sentiment.

“[I feel] delight and relief that the Supreme Court declined to hear the case,” Wilson told Church & State.

Barry W. Lynn, Americans United executive director, also hailed the conclusion of the case.

“When government meetings are opened regularly with Christian prayer,” said Lynn in a press statement, “it sends the unmistakable message that non-Christians are second-class citizens in their own community. That’s unconstitutional, and it’s just plain wrong. All Americans ought to feel welcome at governmental meetings. The Constitution clearly forbids government to play favorites when it comes to religion.”

Khan said the outcome of this case will send a message to other governmental bodies that want to open meetings with sectarian prayers.

“County councils that persist in presenting exclusive prayers do so at legal peril,” she said. “They’d be well advised to modify their practice to ensure that their prayers are inclusive of all faith traditions by presenting nonsectarian prayers or opening meetings with a moment of silence.”

The resolution of Joyner v. Forsyth may go so far as to dispel the myth that America was founded as a Christian nation. The Rev. Richard Groves, a retired Southern Baptist minister, said at a meeting of Americans United’s Winston-Salem chapter in January that his “cynical belief” is that this case arose from the misguided assumption that America was founded to reflect one religion, according to the Journal.

“[The settlers were primarily] ordinary people who were looking for a better life in what they considered a land of opportunity,” Groves said. “It was a place to start over.”

The case has already had some positive effect on local government in Forsyth County, though it should be noted that the county commission has yet to announce a new prayer policy.

“The Winston-Salem City Council has already made a decision to go from sectarian prayer before meetings to a moment of silence,” Wilson said. “The board of commissioners hasn’t decided how to respond yet, and we’ve urged them to go to a moment of silence as well.”

The most important outcome of this case is that it will help protect the right of minorities and non-believers.

“It may help minority faiths and people who do not have a faith to feel more like first-class citizens and feel like they have more of a voice now,” Blackmon said.

In the end, that’s what this was all about.

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