WASHINGTON The U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear the case over public prayers in North Carolina's Forsyth County, leaving the lower court's ruling that allowed censoring the prayers of citizens before public meetings.
By declining to hear a case involving a Forsyth County, N.C. invocation policy, the court allowed a decision by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit to stand that permits prayer but requires the county to aggressively police the words of those offering them.
Forsyth County officials used to begin their public meetings with prayer and allowed the invited clergy to offer prayers consistent with the dictates of their own consciences.
In March 2007, American Civil Liberties Union and Americans United for Separation of Church and State attorneys sued the Forsyth County Commission on behalf of three individuals because they claimed to be offended by simply hearing the invited speakers deliver prayers that included a reference to Jesus Christ or any other named deity. They demanded the county discourage or ban invited speakers "from including references to Jesus Christ, or any other sectarian deity, as part of their prayers."
The 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a ban on prayers by clergy that may mention a particular deity prior to public meetings. The court reviewed 33 prayers given before meetings between 2007 and 2008 that were Christian and, therefore, considered a government endorsement of a religion.
Two judges on the three-judge panel for the 4th Circuit upheld the district court's ruling against the county commission's policy. 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."
Alliance Defense Fund attorneys represented the Forsyth County Board of Commissioners.
"America's founders never shied away from referencing the God to whom they were praying when offering public invocations; the citizens of Forsyth County should have this same opportunity," said ADF Senior Counsel David Cortman. "No federal court has ruled that prayers cannot be offered before public meetings. The Supreme Court has simply missed an opportunity to clear up the differing opinions among the various circuits about the content of the prayers."
Americans United Executive Director Barry Lynn lauded the Supreme Court's decision not to consider the case.
"When government meetings are opened regularly with Christian prayer, it sends the unmistakable message that non-Christians are second-class citizens in their own community," Lynn said in a statement. "That's unconstitutional, and it's just plain wrong."
According to Cortman, the decision to decline a review of this case means that the standard for prayer policies in the 4th Circuit will be in conflict with the history of invocations in America and other recent federal court decisions. Each of the five other federal courts to review similar policies since 2008 has found them to be constitutional.
"Public officials shouldn't be coerced into censoring the prayers of those invited to offer them just because the ACLU and AU don't like people praying according to their own consciences," said ADF-allied attorney and co-counsel Mike Johnson.
Cortman said that ADF will continue to litigate in favor of the historical standard until the Supreme Court eventually hears a case that will clear up the confusion.