The U.S. Supreme Court refused to give government bodies more freedom to open sessions with prayers, rejecting a pair of appeals that sought to loosen the restrictions some lower courts have imposed.
The justices today left intact a federal appeals ruling that said a North Carolina county board was violating the constitutional separation of church and state by opening most of its sessions with a Christian prayer. The high court also refused to review a separate decision that barred prayers at meetings of a Delaware school board.
The Supreme Court hasn’t ruled on the constitutionality of prayer at government meetings since 1983, when the justices said lawmakers could begin sessions with nonsectarian prayers offered by a state-employed chaplain.
The court under Chief Justice John Roberts has given governmental bodies more freedom to support religion. The court last year put new limits on the power of citizens to challenge government programs as violating the constitutional ban on the establishment of religion. The justices last week ruled for the first time that religious organizations can’t be sued for job discrimination by their ministers.
In the North Carolina case, the Forsyth County Board of Commissioners used private religious leaders to deliver its prayers, each year inviting members of various faiths to sign up on a first-come, first-served basis to deliver an invocation.
Referring to Jesus
The result tended to be prayers that were predominantly Christian. From May 29, 2007, to Dec. 15, 2008, almost 80 percent of the prayers referred to Jesus, according to the decision by the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond, Virginia.
“Invocations must consist of the type of nonsectarian prayers that solemnize the legislative task and seek to unite rather than divide,” Judge J. Harvie Wilkinson wrote for the majority in the 2-1 appeals court decision. “Sectarian prayers must not serve as the gateway to citizen participation in the affairs of local government.”
The U.S. Senate and House of Representatives open their daily sessions with a non-denominational prayer by a chaplain or a guest member of the clergy.
Forsyth County, which has 350,000 residents and includes the city of Winston-Salem, contends the lower court ruling will force local governments to parse the content of legislative prayers to eliminate any sectarian references.
“The invocation policy of Forsyth County informed the audience of the purpose of the invocations, permitted the invocations to be presented by private citizens rather than a paid government employee and opened the opportunity to members of all faith traditions,” the county argued.
Two women who attended a 2007 board meeting, Janet Joyner and Constance Lynne Blackmon, challenged the prayer policy. Their lawyers include attorneys from the American Civil Liberties Union.
“The law is now settled, and we are very happy that nobody in Forsyth County or anywhere else will feel like a second-class citizen because of what they believe,” said Katy Parker, legal director for the ACLU’s North Carolina chapter.
The case is Forsyth County v. Joyner, 11-546.
In the other case, the justices left intact a federal appeals court decision that barred prayers at meetings of the Indian River School Board in Delaware.
The Philadelphia-based 3rd Circuit said the involvement of students made the board meetings different from legislative sessions. The three-judge panel likened the meetings to a school graduation ceremony, which the Supreme Court said in 1992 couldn’t be a forum for organized prayer.
The case is Indian River School District v. Doe, 11-569.