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No Supreme Court Review for Forsyth County Prayer Case

By Robyn Hagan Cain on January 17, 2012 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

The Supreme Court rejected the Forsyth County prayer case today.

Forsyth County and the Alliance Defense Fund were appealing a July decision from the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals, which said that the Forsyth County Board of Commissioners (Board) could only open meetings with nonsectarian prayers.

The Board created a written policy for meeting invocations in 2007. Using phone books, Internet research, and resources from the local Chamber of Commerce, the clerk to the Board compiled and maintained the "Congregations List," a database of all religious congregations with an established presence in the community. No eligible congregation was excluded, and any congregation could confirm its inclusion by writing to the clerk.

Each November, the clerk would update the list, and then mail an invitation to the "religious leader" of each congregation. The letter informed those individuals that they were eligible to deliver an invocation and could schedule an appointment on a first-come, first-serve basis.

Prior to the opening gavel that officially began the meeting, the Board Chair would introduce the religious leader, and invite those who wished to stand to do so. After the speaker took the podium, the commissioners, (and most audience members), would stand, and the prayer would commence.

The American Civil Liberties Union and Americans United for Separation of Church and State sued to challenge Forsyth County's invocation policy in 2007, on behalf of longtime residents Janet Joyner and Constance Blackmon. Joyner and Blackmon complained that the board was, both in action and inaction, sponsoring sectarian prayer at its meetings.

A federal district court agreed with Joyner and Blackmon in 2010, and ordered the board to either change or end its current prayer policy.

In a 2-1 opinion, the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed that decision, noting that "the proximity of prayer to official government business can create an environment in which the government prefers -- or appears to prefer -- particular sects or creeds at the expense of others," which violates the "clearest command of the Establishment Clause."

According to the Fourth Circuit, nonsectarian prayers are permissible because they avoid marginalizing meeting attendees of different faiths.

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