Jul 29, 2011

A federal appellate court has struck down a North Carolina county’s policy of opening board meetings with sectarian prayers.

The 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals today ruled 2-1 that the Forsyth County Board of Commissioners’ preference for Christian prayers violates the constitutional separation of church and state.

Americans United hailed the court’s ruling.

“This decision says all Americans are equal regardless of their beliefs about religion,” said Americans United Legal Director Ayesha N. Khan. “The government must never send the signal that one faith has preferred status.

“When Americans go to government meetings, they should feel welcome regardless of their beliefs about religion,” she continued. “The Forsyth board’s regular use of Christian prayer clearly violated the separation of church and state.”

Plaintiffs in the Joyner v. Forsyth County lawsuit are Janet Joyner and Constance Lynn Blackmon, two county residents and members of the Winston-Salem Chapter of Americans United for Separation of Church and State.

They were represented by Americans United for Separation of Church and State and the ACLU of North Carolina.

The record in the case indicates that 26 of the 33 invocations given from May 29, 2007, until Dec. 15, 2008, contained at least one reference to Jesus, Jesus Christ, Christ, Savior or the Trinity.

The appellate court majority said government favoritism in religion is wrong.

"Faith is as deeply important as it is deeply personal,” wrote Judge J. Harvey Wilkinson, “and the government should not appear to suggest that some faiths have it wrong and others got it right."

Observed Wilkinson, “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."

He added, "[C]itizens should come to public meetings confident in the assurance that government plays no favorites in matters of faith but welcomes the participation of all."