ACLU Warns NC About General Assembly’s Use of Sectarian Prayers to Open Meetings
Federal Appeals Court Recently Affirmed that Any Prayers Used in a Government Setting Must be Nonsectarian and Cannot Endorse One Particular Religion Over Others
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RALEIGH – The American Civil Liberties Union of North Carolina Legal Foundation (ACLU-NCLF) today sent a letter to North Carolina Attorney General Roy Cooper outlining constitutional concerns about the ongoing use of sectarian prayers to open meetings of the North Carolina General Assembly (NCGA). Several legislators and members of the community have contacted the ACLU-NCLF to express concern about the frequent practice of convening sessions of the NCGA with sectarian prayer.
The letter comes after the U.S. Supreme Court announced last month that it would not review a July ruling by the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals in favor of ACLU-NCLF clients who objected to the frequent use of sectarian prayer by the Forsyth County Board of Commissioners. In that case, Joyner v. Forsyth County Board of Commissioners, the Court ruled that sectarian prayer in a government setting was a violation of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. The Fourth Circuit has jurisdiction over North Carolina.
“We recommend that you adopt a policy to ensure that the NCGA halts the practice of opening sessions with sectarian invocations,” wrote Katy Parker, Legal Director of the ACLU-NCLF, in today’s letter to Attorney General Cooper. Citing case law, Parker points out in the letter that “the NCGA is still permitted to open its sessions with a prayer, so long as the prayer is nonsectarian.”
In the Joyner decision, Judge J. Harvie Wilkinson III wrote that “prayer in government settings carries risks. The proximity of prayer to official government business can create an environment in which the government prefers—or appears to prefer—particular sects or creeds at the expense of others … [L]egislative prayer must strive to be nondenominational so long as that is reasonably possible – it should send a signal of welcome rather than exclusion. It should not reject the tenets of other faiths in favor of just one.”
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