Commissioners from a North Carolina county entered an appeals court Thursday to protect their right to mention Jesus' name in prayers said before public meetings.
Attorneys representing Forsyth County appeared in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit to appeal a District Court's decision to bar commissioners from opening public meetings with prayers prayed in Jesus' name.
"America's founders opened public meetings with uncensored prayer. Public officials should be able to do the same," said Mike Johnson, the attorney representing the county.
The 90-minute appeal hearing was led by a three-judge panel. The panel asked many questions about the county's prayer policy, reported Johnson.
"They (the judges) wanted to know what the contours of the prayer policy w[ere] in Forsyth Country," he summed.
He continued, "We explained very clearly that it's a completely open-ended procedure where they (the commissioners) invite clergy on a rotating basis and they don't censor or control the content of what is said from the podium. The follow-up question [was] 'why is that so important?' We explained that that's the only way to respect the principles of the establishment clause and free exercise of the Constitution."
The ACLU and Americans United for Separation of Church and State assert that sectarian prayers to any deity violate the First Amendment of the U. S. Constitution.
However, Johnson contended that the clergy's prayers, shared during time allotted for a private forum, constitute private speech. The Constitution's establishment clause does not apply to private speech, he said.
"It becomes an issue of free speech and free exercise for those who come to speak as volunteers," he informed The Christian Post.
He further stated that the individuals who brought the case are really at issue with Christians.
"Make no mistake about it, this case is about whether or not a prayer giver can mention the name of Jesus," Johnson contended.
The case began on March 30, 2007, when ACLU and AU attorneys filed a lawsuit against the county in District Court at the behest of Forsyth residents Janet Joyner and Constance Blackmon.
Joyner, Blackmon and a third defendant sued the county because the board "does not have a policy which discourages or prohibits those whom [the board] has invited to deliver prayers from including references to Jesus Christ, or any other sectarian deity, as part of their prayers."
In January 2010, the U.S. District Court issued an order agreeing with a federal magistrate's recommendation to rule against Forsyth County, despite arguments made by the county's lawyers.
The board of commissioners voted in favor of filing a Circuit Court appeal after a public meeting in February 2010 drew nearly 1,000 county residents in support of continuing the case.
Johnson said he feels confident that the court will find that the county's prayers do not violate the Constitution.
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit’s decision will affect the state as well as future prayer rulings around the country. Johnson said the case may also land in the U.S. Supreme Court depending on the appeals court's ruling.
Johnson, a former senior legal counsel with the Alliance Defense Fund, is now the founding dean of the Pressler School of Law at Louisiana College. The private Baptist college will launch the new law school late this summer. According to Johnson, it is the first Christian law school of its kind in the South.