Forsyth County will ask U.S. Supreme Court to review prayer case

County commission votes to appeal 4th Circuit ruling on invocations that conflicts with other courts, American history
Tuesday, August 09, 2011

ADF-allied attorney sound bite:  Mike Johnson

WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. — The Forsyth County Board of Commissioners voted Monday night 6-1 to ask the U.S. Supreme Court to review a decision by a federal appellate court that upheld a ban on prayers by clergy that may mention a particular deity prior to public meetings. Alliance Defense Fund attorneys representing the Forsyth County Board of Commissioners point out that the decision, issued by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit, is in conflict with other federal court decisions and out of step with the history of invocations in America.

“America’s founders opened public meetings with prayer; Forsyth County simply wants to allow its citizens to do the same,” said Mike Johnson, an ADF-allied attorney and founding dean of Louisiana College’s Pressler School of Law.  “There’s no reason that today’s public officials should be forced to censor the prayers of people invited to offer them simply because secularist groups don’t like people praying according to their own conscience. Other federal courts around the country have ruled differently than the 4th Circuit, and America has a vast history of offering prayers before public meetings. We trust the U.S. Supreme Court will want to review this case.”

In the case Joyner v. Forsyth County, two judges on a three-judge panel for the 4th Circuit upheld a district court’s ruling against the county commission’s invocation policy, which allows invited clergy to offer prayers that mention the name of a particular deity before the start of public meetings. The third judge on the panel, Circuit Judge Paul V. Niemeyer, strongly dissented from the ruling, writing that “the majority has dared to step in and regulate the language of prayer.”

Other federal courts have upheld the ADF model invocation policy on which the county’s policy is based. The most recent example is a July 11 decision that upheld the invocation policy of Lancaster, Calif. Each of the four other federal courts to review similar invocation policies since 2009 has found them to be constitutional.

In March 2007, attorneys with the American Civil Liberties Union and Americans United for Separation of Church and State sued the Forsyth County Commission on behalf of three individuals because it “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 other words, the ACLU and AU are advocating censorship,” said ADF Senior Counsel Brett Harvey.  “They do not wish to allow private citizens invited by the board to express themselves consistent with the dictates of their own conscience.”

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.