Forsyth County, N.C., decides to oppose legal challenge to opening invocations

Majority of board of commissioners members decide by consensus to retain ADF to fight lawsuit seeking end to ‘sectarian’ prayers
Thursday, April 12, 2007

WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. — A majority of the members of the Forsyth County Board of Commissioners determined Thursday it will fight a lawsuit challenging its right to allow opening invocations by volunteers who wish to pray according to the dictates of their own consciences.  Alliance Defense Fund attorneys were retained to mount a defense and preserve an important American tradition that dates back to the First Congress.

“The practice of opening public proceedings with prayer existed at the time of our nation’s founding and has continued throughout our history.  We applaud board members for their decision to take this important stand against the ACLU’s radical agenda to censor the speech of private citizens,” said ADF Senior Legal Counsel Mike Johnson, who will serve as lead defense counsel in the case.  “There is absolutely nothing unlawful or inappropriate about this board’s prayer practices, and we look forward to a definitive victory.”

The lawsuit Joyner v. Forsyth County was filed by local chapters of the American Civil Liberties Union and Americans United for Separation of Church and State on March 30 in the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of North Carolina.

The three named individual plaintiffs are suing because the board of commissioners “does not have a policy which discourages or prohibits those whom [the board] has invited to deliver prayers from including references to Jesus Christ, or any other sectarian deity, as part of their prayers.”

In recent months, the ACLU and its allies have issued demand letters to elected officials in Forsyth County and numerous other towns and counties demanding that they immediately halt the practice of opening meetings with a prayer of the giver’s choosing.  ADF has drafted and made available model invocations policies and offered free legal defense to local officials wishing to preserve their constitutional traditions.

“According to the U.S. Supreme Court, ‘sectarian’ references are not a problem so long as the prayer opportunity has not been ‘exploited’ to aggressively promote or proselytize one religion or disparage any other,” said Johnson.  “Not only has the prayer opportunity never been exploited in this way at Forsyth County Commission meetings, the board has been careful to rotate the prayer duty among local religious leaders from a variety of backgrounds and denominations.”

Recently, federal courts have specifically upheld “sectarian” references in public invocations and have noted that countless public bodies, including Congress, have continued to maintain the tradition.

ADF is a legal alliance of Christian attorneys and like-minded organizations defending the right of people to freely live out their faith. Launched in 1994, ADF employs a unique combination of strategy, training, funding, and litigation to protect and preserve religious liberty, the sanctity of life, marriage, and the family.