The Forsyth County Board of Commissioners has asked the U.S. Supreme Court to trump a ruling that forbids its members from mentioning Jesus in prayers that precede their meetings.
“We’re confident the court will take a real interest in this case, and that opinion, I think, is shared by constitutional law scholars and litigators around the country,” Mike Johnson, a lawyer of Alliance Defense Fund, a conservative legal organization representing county commissioners, said Friday.
“There are many people watching this one closely,” Winston-Salem News quoted Johnson as saying, a day after the Board appealed to the court to overturn a July ruling by the 4th District Court of Appeals that banned prayers in the name of a single deity before government meetings.
The appeals court’s ruling was in favor of two Forsyth County residents, Janet Joyner and Constance Blackmon, who objected to the prayers that they said were in favor of one religion over all others. They were backed by the American Civil Liberties Union and the Americans United for Separation of Church and State.
The ADF finds the ruling conflicting with an earlier judgment. “The 4th Circuit decision is directly at odds with the decision by the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals that was handed down about two years ago – same legal question, different outcome,” the ADF lawyer added. “And when there is a situation like that, it’s typical that the court sees a duty to step in and resolve the conflict.”
In Thursday’s appeal, the ADF asked the court to decide whether public bodies were required to know in advance what would be the content of prayers. It “imposes an unwieldy requirement that government police the language of prayers,” the appeal said. “Does the Constitution require the government to censor prayer content to exclude sectarian references?”
However, the Americans United for Separation of Church and State hopes that the court will not hear the commissioners’ plea. “We have asked Forsyth County to present prayers that are inclusive of all faiths… make meetings a place where all faiths feel welcome with non-sectarian, non-denominational prayer,” the group’s legal director Ayesha N. Khan was quoted as saying. She said the Supreme Court was not likely to hear the case.
Members of the board maintain that it’s an issue that has a national significance. “It’s not just a Forsyth County issue, it’s a national issue,” Commissioner Gloria Whisenhunt was quoted as saying. “I have never had such support on any issue that we’ve had from the entire nation. We receive calls and emails whenever this issue is brought up.”
Whisenhunt added that the issue was far broader than what the opponents were projecting. “It’s about freedom of speech – American tradition. It’s far more than just religion.”