Federal appeals court rules county board meeting prayers violated First Amendment

[JURIST] The US Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit [official website] on Friday upheld [opinion, PDF] a ruling by a federal district court that the Forsyth County, North Carolina, Board of Commissioners [official website] violated the First Amendment [Cornell LII backgrounder] by beginning its public meetings with sectarian prayer. The lawsuit against the county was originally filed by three residents who felt that "the Board's legislative prayer policy did in fact violate the Establishment Clause [of the First Amendment] by advancing and endorsing Christianity to the exclusion of other faiths." While the Board had no official written policy concerning prayer prior to the suit being filed in 2007, for years it began its twice-monthly meetings with an invocation delivered by a local religious leader who was invited on a volunteer first-come, first-serve basis. The meetings in question are open to and attended by many of the county's approximately 350,000 residents. The invocation given at each meeting preceded the Pledge of Allegiance and nearly always included references to specific tenets of Christianity. Claiming to have attended or watched several Board meetings, the plaintiffs in the case requested and won both a declaratory judgment that the Board's sponsorship of sectarian prayers violated the Establishment Clause, and an injunction precluding sectarian prayers from future Board meetings. The 2-1 appellate decision was delivered in a lengthy analysis of the relevant facts and law, concluding,

To plant sectarian prayers at the heart of local government is a prescription for religious discord. ... That the Board and religious leaders in Forsyth County hold steadfast to their faith is certainly no cause for condemnation. But where prayer in public fora is concerned, the deep beliefs of the speaker afford only more reason to respect the profound convictions of the listener. Free religious exercise posits broad religious tolerance. The policy here, as implemented, upsets the careful balance the First Amendment seeks to bring about.
Soon after the suit was filed, the Board formalized its policy, codifying past practice but removing the invocation as an agenda item. The Board also clarified its policy goal that the hands-off approach toward booking the invocations is an expression of the Board's respect for the county's various denominations and faiths. The court found that in the year before the suit was filed at least half of the invocations concluded with references to Jesus. Audio recordings confirm that after the Board implemented the new policy "almost four-fifths of the prayers referred to 'Jesus,' 'Jesus Christ,' 'Christ,' or 'Savior.' ... None of the prayers mentioned non-Christian deities."

The US Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit [official website] ruled [JURIST report] in June that the New York City Department of Education [official website] can enforce a rule prohibiting outside groups from using school facilities for after-school worship services. In April, Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff [official website] petitioned [JURIST report] the US Supreme Court [official website; JURIST news archive] to decide whether crosses placed beside highways as memorials to deceased Utah Highway Patrol (UHP) [official website] troopers is an unconstitutional government endorsement of religion. The petition seeks review of an August 2010 ruling [JURIST report] by the US Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit [official website], which found that "the cross memorials would convey to a reasonable observer that the state of Utah is endorsing Christianity." Also last month, the US Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit [official website] dismissed [JURIST report] a constitutional challenge to the National Day of Prayer (NDP) [official website], overturning an earlier lower court decision [JURIST report] that found the event in violation of the Establishment Clause by representing government-backed encouragement that Americans engage in non-secular activity.

 

About Paper Chase

Paper Chase is JURIST's real-time legal news service, powered by a team of 30 law student reporters and editors led by law professor Bernard Hibbitts at the University of Pittsburgh School of Law. As an educational service, Paper Chase is dedicated to presenting important legal news and materials rapidly, objectively and intelligibly in an accessible format.

© Copyright JURIST Legal News and Research Services, Inc., 2013.