(Photo: Board of Commissioners of Forsyth County)
The United States Supreme Court has refused to hear an appeal from a North Carolina county government regarding a lower court decision barring sectarian prayer at its meetings.
The Board of Commissioners for Forsyth County, N.C., will not be allowed to appeal a decision by the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals against its prayer policy. Although the decision still allows prayers at the board’s meetings, they must now be nonsectarian.
“I am very disappointed in the decision by the U.S. Supreme Court to deny review of our prayer lawsuit,” said Debra L. Conrad, vice chair of the board, to The Christian Post.
“No elected official ever gave a sectarian prayer. We had an open door policy.”
Alliance Defense Fund Senior Counsel David Cortman, who was one of the attorneys representing Forsyth County, said that the Supreme Court’s decision would result in less inclusiveness rather than more.
“The irony is that the Fourth Circuit's decision will now result in the exclusion of many people with devout religious belief simply because of the way they pray,” said Cortman.
In 2007, Americans United for Separation of Church and State and the American Civil Liberties Union sued the Forsyth County Commission on behalf of Forsyth residents who said they were offended by hearing prayers that referenced Jesus Christ or other deities.
By a vote of two to one, a three judge panel agreed in 2011 with a district court’s ruling against the board’s prayer policy.
Joe Conn, a spokesman for Americans United for Separation of Church and State, told CP that the Supreme Court’s decision to not hear the case was not surprising since it “only takes a small fraction of the cases that come before it.”
“I think most judges know that the Constitution does not permit government officials to play favorites when it comes to religion,” said Conn.
“When government officials or school authorities try to impose prayer, they are overstepping their bounds. Decisions about religious belief and practice should be made by individuals and families, not the government.”
According to Forsyth board member Debra Conrad, there was no exclusivity in the selection process of clergy who would perform sectarian prayers before board meetings.
“We invited a wide variety of both Christian and non-Christian churches to send someone. Our latest written policy was an open invitation for any of the hundreds of yellow page listings,” said Conrad.
“We did not censor or review their prayers prior to hearing them as we believe in freedom of speech. However no one who has come in the last 18 years has disparaged any other faith, tried to convert anyone to their religion or made any negative comments.”
Cortman believed that although the Supreme Court refused to hear this case, other similar cases on sectarian prayer may still make their way to the highest court in the land.
“There are several cases across the country that are currently addressing the permissibility of ‘sectarian’ references in legislative prayer, including some that ADF is litigating, that will make their way to the Supreme Court in due time,” said Cortman.
“We are hopeful that the court will not only agree to hear one of those case to eliminate the conflicting decisions by the lower courts, but in doing so uphold legislative prayer, including any that may be deemed ‘sectarian.’”