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Is deity-specific government prayer more offensive than generic government prayer?
Last month, the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled against Forsyth County and the Alliance Defense Fund, finding that the Forsyth County Board of Commissioners may not open its meetings with an invocation naming a specific deity.
This week, the Forsyth County Board of Commissioners voted to appeal to Fourth Circuit's decision to the Supreme Court.
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 noted 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.”
The Fourth Circuit affirmed the district court’s ruling that the county may only open board meeting with nonsectarian prayers, finding that nonsectarian prayers make government invocations accessible to people of various backgrounds and avoid excluding or disparaging a particular faith.
The Alliance Defense Fund argues that the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals got it wrong. The organization says that Forsyth County’s invocation policy, which is based on the Alliance Defense Fund’s model invocation policy, has been upheld by numerous federal courts.
Cue the talking heads. Whether or not the Supreme Court decides to hear this case, government prayer will continue to provide fodder for 24-hour news networks.