A federal magistrate’s recommendation that limits prayer before government meetings in Forsyth County has touched off a fiery debate across the state over the long-entrenched practice.
In early November, Magistrate Judge Trevor Sharp determined that Forsyth County commissioners failed to remain religiously neutral. Even though they invited outside clergy of different denominations to deliver invocations before meetings, their prayers overwhelmingly referred to Jesus Christ, Savior or the Trinity. Such invocations “display a preference for Christianity over other religions by the government,” Sharp wrote.
The lawsuit was filed on behalf of two longtime residents of Forsyth County who said they felt coerced to stand for the prayer, alienated as county residents, and less inclined to attend county meetings.
A formal judge’s ruling is still pending, but it is widely held the magistrate’s recommendation will prevail. Forsyth County has already filed an objection and it is unclear how far an appeal might go. A decision is still pending. Precedents barring references to Christ at government meetings in the state are already on the books, however, according to a ruling by the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals in 2004 that originated in South Carolina. There, a citizen sued his town board for praying specifically to Jesus Chirst during the invocations and won.
After Sharp’s recommendation came to light, Buncombe County commissioners toyed with the idea of replacing their invocations with a moment of silence. Following a backlash from some county residents, the commissioners decided to keep their system of rotating clergy in place until the Forsyth case is decided.
While each county attorney has the responsibility of advising individual boards on prayer, Jim Blackburn, general counsel for the North Carolina Association of County Commissioners, advises commissioners to track down a court decision that defends their particular type of prayer.
Blackburn said it is far from unusual for county commissioners in North Carolina to conduct prayers at meetings, but the NCACC has not yet had much discussion on the practice. With the Forsyth case striking a chord for many commissioners, that’s likely to change.
“I expect we will [discuss prayer] at various meetings in the rest of winter and spring,” said Blackburn. “I do know there are people on boards of commissioners who feel strongly they ought to be able to do them.”
With a wealth of court battles waged over public prayers producing varied results, there’s bound to be some uncertainty each time the controversial topic resurfaces.
First Amendment and Constitutional scholars have debated the issue for a hundred years, and entire law school textbooks have been devoted to the subject, according to Blackburn.
“It’s an argument that’s been going on for a long, long time,” said Blackburn.
While the First Congress held a prayer before its sessions, the Constitution plainly states that the government can never establish an official religion.
“There’s just a logical disconnect,” said Janet Ford, a Western Carolina University professor who teaches a course on civil rights.
In 1983, Supreme Court upheld opening legislative sessions with generic prayers in Marsh v. Chambers. But more recently, Supreme Court justices have grown stringent about allowing prayers in public settings, especially in schools.
Justices seem to have drawn a distinction between prayer at schools and those at government meetings, according to Collins.
For example, even school prayers that are voluntary and nondenominational have been stricken down.
The Supreme Court rejected the state of Alabama’s institution of a moment of silence for personal reflection and prayer in all elementary schools.
According to Collins, the justices are strict about prayer in school because the setting is somewhat unique.
“Children are more impressionable. They can’t just get up and leave,” Collins said.
While prayers that children encounter in school every day receive high publicity, county meetings often have sparse attendance, allowing their prayers to land further off the radar.
Local government officials are usually unaware of the law or decide to break it anyway because they feel supported in their crusade by voters, Collins said.
Until they are legally challenged, local officials can continue flagrantly violating the law, thereby drawing attention to the limits of the judicial branch’s reach.
It would be difficult to change the status quo if most voters and commissioners accepted Christian prayers before government meetings, Collins added.
“For the elected officials, it may actually be a campaign point,” said Collins. “They may actually gain votes this way.”
Katy Parker, legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union of North Carolina, said most county and city attorneys agree with the ACLU, but they are unable to force their commissioners or city council members to follow the law.
Parker advises commissioners to consider that their taxpayers would be likely to foot the bill should a lawsuit arise. In the Forsyth case, which Parker is prosecuting, ACLU has already spent in excess of $100,000.
What is allowed?
While courts throughout the country have differed wildly in their judgments on prayers, Collins said as a guideline, a generic reference to God will more likely be allowed than any words confessing a particular faith. Words like “Heavenly Father” and “Lord” tend to be acceptable at public meetings, but uttering “Jesus” is usually the ticket to a lost lawsuit.
Parker said it’s hardly ever a close call with the cases she handles.
“It’s Jesus, Jesus, Jesus all throughout the prayer,” said Parker.
The majority opinion in Marsh v. Chambers ruled that there was a historical precedence for prayer before legislative sessions. Prayers also serve to “solemnize” the occasion.
The opinion amusingly adds that legislators need all the help they can get, Parker said.
While prayers are held before sessions of the U.S. Congress, it would take a U.S. Senator or Congressman’s challenge to change policy at that level.
ACLU would not complain against a specific county unless a resident who attends meetings and is bothered by prayers contacts the organization.
“We need to hear from somebody in the community who feels harmed before we’re going to take our time and resources and get involved,” said Parker. “Whether the ACLU contacts them or not, they swore to uphold the Constitution, and they should do it.”
Some religious symbols, such as a Christmas trees, have become so routine and ceremonial that they have shed their religious symbolism in the public’s eye.
“We see it so often, it’s not thought of as necessarily endorsing religion,” said Todd Collins, professor of public law at Western Carolina University.
Courts have also upheld engraving “In God We Trust” on all coins and currency, arguing that it does not endorse religion.
Collins said this particular usage of that phrase has become a part of tradition and seems to hold little meaning for many who regularly see it on currency.