North Carolina Residents File Lawsuit Challenging the Use of Sectarian Invocations to Open County Commissioners' Meetings

March 30, 2007 12:00 am

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WINSTON-SALEM, NC – Acting on behalf of several Forsyth County residents, the American Civil Liberties Union of North Carolina and the Winston-Salem Chapter of Americans United for Separation of Church and State filed a lawsuit in federal court today, challenging the use of sectarian invocations to open official meetings of the Forsyth County Board of Commissioners.

The lawsuit was brought on behalf of longtime residents of the county who have attended or witnessed 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 county residents.

“The lawsuit does not seek to prevent the Forsyth County Board of Commissioners from opening government meetings with a prayer,” said ACLU of North Carolina Staff Attorney Katherine Lewis Parker. “Rather, our clients ask only that any prayers or invocations used to open Forsyth County Commissioners meetings be offered in a nonsectarian manner, consistent with respect for the diverse beliefs of all residents of Forsyth County and the Constitutional requirement that the government not prefer any particular religion over other faiths.”

In 1983, the United States Supreme Court ruled in Marsh v. Chambers that if a legislative body chooses to open its meetings with a prayer, such prayer must not be “exploited to proselytize or advance any one, or to disparage any other, faith or belief.” The prayers before the legislature that were upheld in the Marsh case were nonsectarian – in other words, the prayers were not specific to any particular religion. In addition, the Fourth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, whose jurisdiction includes North Carolina, has repeatedly and recently upheld this principle of government neutrality in religious matters by insisting that legislative invocations be nonsectarian in nature.

“These are public meetings, and people of all religious viewpoints ought to feel welcome there,” said Steve Weston, President of the Winston-Salem Chapter of Americans United for Separation of Church and State. “The county commissioners have ignored the advice of even their own attorney and have refused to take action to ensure that future invocations are non-sectarian.”

Plaintiff Janet Joyner is a retired college professor who has lived in Forsyth County for more than 30 years. Plaintiffs Osborne Mauck and Connie Blackmon are longtime county residents who have also witnessed Forsyth County Commissioners’ meetings at which sectarian invocations were delivered. All three object to this practice on the grounds that their elected officials are supposed to represent and serve all members of the community, and by allowing invocations that promote one particular set of religious beliefs, the county commissioners are not being inclusive of all people of faith in the community. Moreover, the plaintiffs point out that their elected officials took an oath to uphold the Constitution and laws of the United States, and the use of sectarian invocations at the county commissioners’ meetings has been repeatedly held unconstitutional.

“It’s a matter of basic fairness,” said Joyner. “Our county commissioners meetings are official government meetings, and the government needs to treat all members of the community equally and respect people of different faiths. Sitting in the audience when sectarian prayer was used to open the meeting, it was clear that our government was not being religiously neutral or inclusive of all residents of Forsyth County.”

The lawsuit, filed in United States District Court for the Middle District of North Carolina, asks the court to declare the practice of allowing sectarian invocations unconstitutional and to enjoin any further use of sectarian invocations at future Forsyth County Board of Commissioners’ meetings.

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