Citizens of Forsyth County Win Lawsuit Challenging the Use of Sectarian Invocations to Open County Commissioners' Meetings

January 28, 2010 12:00 am

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U.S. District Court Judge Upholds Magistrate’s Recommendation That County Prayer Policy Is Unconstitutional Endorsement of Religion


WINSTON-SALEM – The American Civil Liberties Union of North Carolina Legal Foundation (ACLU-NCLF) and the Winston-Salem Chapter of Americans United for Separation of Church and State applauded a ruling today by U.S. District Court Judge James Beaty finding that the use of sectarian invocations to open official meetings of the Forsyth County Board of Commissioners violates the First Amendment to the United States Constitution. The lawsuit was filed on behalf of Janet Joyner and Constance Blackmon, longtime residents of Forsyth County who have attended meetings of the Forsyth County Board of Commissioners at which sectarian prayers were used and who object to this practice as a violation of the Constitutional rights of all residents of the County.

“I am very happy with the Court’s ruling today because this court order preserves freedom of conscience for people of all different beliefs, whether they are in the majority or the minority, by requiring our government to remain neutral in matters of religion,” said Plaintiff Constance Blackmon.

Judge Beaty’s order upholds the November 2009 recommendation of Magistrate Judge Trevor Sharp, finding that the Forsyth County prayer policy violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to the United States Constitution and concluding that the County should be ordered to end or change its current prayer policy.

Judge Beaty writes, “In making this determination, the Court concludes that the invocation Policy, as implemented, has resulted in Government-sponsored prayers that advance a specific faith or belief and have the effect of affiliating the Government with that particular faith or belief.”

Existing case law under the U.S. Supreme Court and also the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals, which governs North Carolina courts, has held that government entities are constitutionally permitted to open their meetings with a prayer if – and only if – those prayers are nonsectarian, meaning the content of the prayer may not favor any particular religion nor disparage any particular religion.

“We are pleased today for our clients and all religious minorities in Forsyth County who have felt shut out and alienated by their own government because of its public stance in favor of Christianity,” said ACLU-NCLF Legal Director Katherine Lewis Parker.

The case is called Janet Joyner, et al. v. Forsyth County, North Carolina, Case No. 1:07 cv 00243. Katherine Lewis Parker, ACLU-NCLF Legal Director, is attorney of record for the Plaintiffs in this case.

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