An ACLU attorney representing plaintiffs in the Forsyth County prayer case is arguing that a federal judge should not dissolve the injunction that barred Forsyth County from allowing clergy to deliver sectarian prayers before county commissioner meetings.
Forsyth County was sued in federal court in 2007 over its invocation practice and has been prohibited from allowing sectarian prayers since a federal judge issued an injunction in 2010.
In June, Forsyth County asked a federal court to dissolve the injunction in response to a recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling on prayer.
The Supreme Court said in a 5-4 decision that the town of Greece, N.Y., did not violate the U.S. Constitution by allowing ministers to deliver Christian prayers at meetings, because it had an inclusive policy.
Chris Brook, legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union of North Carolina, filed a brief Monday evening in opposition to Forsyth County’s request. He is representing plaintiffs Janet Joyner and Constance Blackmon.
The brief argues that Forsyth County is overreaching by asking for the injunction to be dissolved, and that it is entitled only to a modification.
“The general point is that Forsyth County should welcome its entire community through its prayer policy, and the policy that the county currently has in place favors some religious denominations over others as well as believers over nonbelievers,” Brook said Tuesday.
“No one is arguing that Town of Greece was not a significant case, but it did not give legislative bodies carte blanche to engage in any prayer practice they choose,” Brook said.
The Alliance Defending Freedom is assisting Forsyth County in its effort to get the court order removed.
Brett Harvey, senior counsel with the Alliance, said Tuesday that counsel would file a reply in the next few weeks. He said courts had already recognized that the county’s policy was inclusive, and that it was the content of the prayers that they had found problematic.
“The Supreme Court has now made clear that it’s not the government’s job to censor the way people pray, so an injunction that mandates generic prayers needs to be changed, and we think it needs to be lifted altogether,” Harvey said.
The plaintiffs’ brief argues that Forsyth County’s prayer policy discriminates against faiths that do not have clergy or formal leadership structures, less established religious denominations and nonbelievers.
“I don’t think that that’s correct,” Commissioner Gloria Whisenhunt said. “We were extremely inclusive of anyone.”
Forsyth County’s policy, adopted in 2007, said the prayer would be delivered by “an eligible member of the clergy/religious leader.” It said the board clerk would compile a database of “the religious congregations with an established presence” in Forsyth County and invite clergy from the list to voluntarily offer a prayer.
Forsyth County has argued that its practice was similar to that of Greece, N.Y.
According to the Supreme Court majority opinion, Greece had an informal method for selecting prayer givers but eventually compiled a list of willing board chaplains who had accepted invitations. It said leaders maintained that “a minister or layperson of any persuasion, including an atheist, could give the invocation.”
The plaintiffs’ brief also says Forsyth County’s policy supports religious coercion by inviting attendees to stand for prayer.
“Our position is that there would potentially be a way to modify the injunction to include the protections referenced in the Town of Greece,” Brook said.
Forsyth commissioners have been delivering prayers with nonspecific references to God or holding moments of silence at their meetings, but the majority wants to return to the former practice of inviting clergy to pray freely.
“The Supreme Court has spoken, and I think we all should just rely on what they have said,” Whisenhunt said Tuesday.
Commissioner Walter Marshall stressed in May that any county policy should be inclusive of all faiths. Marshall said Tuesday that he thought the county was making adjustments to its policy to come in line with the Supreme Court ruling.
“Certainly the board will be looking at all sorts of options, but from a legal perspective, the first step we wanted to do is lift the injunction altogether that’s been used to silence the prayers in Forsyth County,” Harvey said.