WASHINGTON (ABP) – A Baptist church-state watchdog group urged the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals to uphold a lower-court’s decision barring a North Carolina county commission from opening its meetings with prayers in Jesus’ name.
Oral arguments were scheduled May 12 in Richmond, Va., over the appeal of Joyner v. Forsyth County, a 2007 case brought by county residents claiming invocations at board of commissioners meetings were being used as a platform to promote Christianity in violation of the separation of church and state.
Some conservative Christian groups denounced a January 2010 ruling by a federal district judge against the commissioners as religious censorship. Groups like the American Civil Liberties Union and Americans United for Separation of Church and State, meanwhile, said that government bodies representing all citizens cannot show favoritism toward one religion by inviting clergy to open meetings with sectarian prayer.
In a brief filed on behalf of the taxpayers, the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty says that between May 29, 2007, and Dec. 15, 2008, all but seven of 33 recorded prayers at commission meetings contained some reference to Jesus Christ and none invoked a deity associated with a faith other than Christianity.
The BJC, a 75-year-old, Washington,-based organization that serves 15 regional and national Baptist entities promoting the principles of no establishment and free exercise of religion, cited previous court decisions that allow “legislative prayers” but require they be non-sectarian. The brief urges the appeals court to retain narrow application of a 1983 Supreme Court ruling in Marsh v. Chambers that carved out exceptions to that general rule.
The BJC brief says Forsyth County seeks to expand the narrow exception created in Marsh in a way that “drastically undercuts the Establishment Clause.” Applying the correct standard, the BJC contends, legislative prayers in the Forsyth County case “are clearly unconstitutional.”
“[T]he legislative prayers in this case have the actual effect of affiliating the Forsyth County Board with the Christian faith and have resulted in the Board advancing Christianity above other belief systems,” the BJC brief argues. “This marriage of a local government and the Christian faith is directly contrary to the fundamental principle of the Establishment Clause, the ‘belief that a union of government and religion tends to destroy government and degrade religion.’”
Hollyn Hollman, general counsel for the Baptist Joint Committee, said upholding both religion clauses of the First Amendment — no establishment and free exercise — protects religious liberty for everyone.
“The Supreme Court has upheld legislative prayer, but that should not be misconstrued to allow someone to exploit the prayer opportunity in a way that advances a particular religion,” Hollman said in a BJC release. “We all should pray for our government officials, but we should not ask the government to supply a platform to promote religion in a business meeting.”
While not the only constitutionally permissible option, the BJC brief includes a footnote encouraging use of moments of silence at public meetings in lieu of spoken prayers.
“A moment of silence allows the government to avoid the constitutional risk associated with an opening prayer while still allowing an acknowledgement of America’s tradition of belief and the solemnization of the public business at hand,” the brief advises. “Such moments of silence have been upheld even in the public school context, as long as they are not clearly intended to endorse religion.”
Bob Allen is managing editor of Associated Baptist Press.