WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. (AP) — The Forsyth County Board of Commissioners was wrong to allow opening prayers at its meetings that singled out praise for a specific deity, a federal appeals court ruled Friday.
In a 2-1 decision, the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond, Va., ruled in favor of two county residents who sued after the prayer before a December 2007 commissioners meeting thanked God for allowing the birth of his son to forgive us for our sins and closed by making the prayer in the name of Jesus.
The decision upholds a lower court ruling that required commissioners to stop its pre-meeting prayers.
"Legislative prayer must strive to be nondenominational so long as that is reasonably possible — it should send a signal of welcome rather than exclusion. It should not reject the tenets of other faiths in favor of just one," Judge J. Harvie Wilkinson III wrote in his ruling.
Judge Paul Niemeyer disagreed, writing in his dissent that Forsyth County allowed believers of any religious faith to give the opening prayer, negating the effect of having a prayer champion only one set of beliefs.
"I respectfully submit that we must maintain a sacred respect of each religion, and when a group of citizens comes together, as does the Forsyth County Board of Commissioners, and manifests that sacred respect — allowing the prayers of each to be spoken in the religion's own voice — we must be glad to let it be," Niemeyer wrote.
But Wilkinson pointed out in his ruling that more than three-quarters of the 33 invocations given from May 2007 to December 2008 referred to "Jesus," ''Jesus Christ," ''Christ" or "Savior."
The legal director for Americans United, a group that backed the two residents along with the American Civil Liberties Union, said government should never give any indication it prefers one faith over the other.
"When Americans go to government meetings, they should feel welcome regardless of their beliefs about religion," Americans United Legal Director Ayesha N. Khan said.
That's exactly how one of the plaintiffs felt after the December 2007 meeting. Constance Blackmon said at the time she felt like she sat through a "one-minute sermon."
"I am very happy with the court's ruling today because this court order preserves freedom of conscience for people of all different beliefs, whether they are in the majority or the minority, by requiring our government to remain neutral in matters of religion," Blackmon said Friday in a statement released by the ACLU.
The Alliance Defense Fund, which represented the Forsyth County commissioners, did not return a message seeking comment.Tags: