Appeals Court Rules That North Carolina County Cannot Open Public Meetings With Sectarian Prayers

July 29, 2011

Ruling Finds that Practice was an Unconstitutional Endorsement of Religion

WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. – A federal appeals court today upheld a decision that the use of sectarian prayers to open official meetings of the Forsyth County Board of Commissioners violates the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. The American Civil Liberties Union, the ACLU of North Carolina Legal Foundation (ACLU-NCLF) and Americans United for Separation of Church and State had filed a lawsuit challenging the practice on behalf of two longtime residents of Forsyth County who have attended the meetings.

“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.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit affirmed a district court decision that the prayer policy violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. Today’s decision also upholds the lower court’s order that the county must end or change its current prayer policy. The county has not opened its official meetings with sectarian prayers since last year’s order.

“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.

Today’s 2-1 decision states, “Because religious belief is so intimate and so central to our being, government advancement and effective endorsement of one faith carries a particular sting for citizens who hold devoutly to another.” The opinion further clarifies existing law which holds that government entities are constitutionally permitted to open their meetings with a prayer if – and only if – those prayers do not favor any particular religion nor disparage any particular religion.

“No one should be treated as a religious outsider when attending local government meetings,” said Daniel Mach, director of the ACLU Program for Freedom of Religion and Belief. “Today's decision reinforces the basic idea that the government shouldn't play favorites with faith."

A copy of the opinion can be found at: www.aclu.org/religion-belief/joyner-v-forsyth-county-opinion

 

Statistics image