Forsyth County Loses Appeal in Sectarian Invocation Lawsuit

July 29, 2011 12:00 am

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Federal Court of Appeals Rules in Favor of Citizens Challenging County Prayer Policy as Unconstitutional Endorsement of Religion

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WINSTON-SALEM – The American Civil Liberties Union of North Carolina Legal Foundation (ACLU-NCLF), the national ACLU’s Program on Freedom of Religion and Belief, and the Winston-Salem Chapter of Americans United for Separation of Church and State applauded a ruling today by the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit that upholds a decision by U.S. District Court Judge James Beaty finding that the use of sectarian invocations to open official meetings of the Forsyth County Board of Commissioners violates the First Amendment to the United States Constitution. The lawsuit was filed in 2007 on behalf of Janet Joyner and Constance Blackmon, longtime residents of Forsyth County who have attended meetings of the Forsyth County Board of Commissioners at which sectarian prayers were used and who object to this practice as a violation of the Constitutional rights of all residents of the County.

“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,” said Plaintiff Constance Blackmon.

The Fourth Circuit’s decision upholds Judge Beaty’s January 2010 decision that the Forsyth County prayer policy violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to the United States Constitution. Today’s decision also upholds Judge Beaty’s order that the County must end or change its current prayer policy. Since Judge Beaty’s order last year, the County has not opened its official meetings with sectarian prayers.

Writing for the majority in today’s 2-1 decision, Judge Wilkinson writes, “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.”

Today’s opinion further clarifies existing case law under the U.S. Supreme Court and also the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals, which governs North Carolina courts, which holds that government entities are constitutionally permitted to open their meetings with a prayer if – and only if – those prayers are nonsectarian, meaning the content of the prayer may not favor any particular religion nor disparage any particular religion.

“We are pleased today for our clients and all religious minorities in Forsyth County who have felt shut out and alienated by their own government because of its public stance in favor of Christianity,” said ACLU-NCLF Legal Director Katherine Lewis Parker.

The case is called Janet Joyner, et al. v. Forsyth County, North Carolina, Case No. 10-1232. Katherine Lewis Parker, ACLU-NCLF Legal Director, is attorney of record for the Plaintiffs in this case.

A copy of the opinion will be posted on the ACLU-NCLF’s website at

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