Local governing bodies have responded in a number of ways to the Supreme Court’s recent refusal to hear a case regarding public prayer.
The high court’s refusal meant a ruling by the U.S. Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals barring sectarian prayers before public meetings, on the grounds it violated the First Amendment, would stand, and public bodies are now scrambling to respond to the new environment.
Government must either deliver a nonsectarian prayer or no prayer at all.
Kinston City Attorney Jim Cauley wrote in an email Wednesday “that case is now the law. However, there is still considerable room for interpretation of the case.”
Two Forsyth County residents brought suit against their county in 2007 after a Christian clergyman invited to give an opening prayer before that county’s Board of Commissioners delivered a prayer filled with specific references to Jesus Christ and other tenets of Christianity, according to Judge J. Harvie Wilkinson III’s opinion.
Wilkinson sided with a lower court’s ruling that the Board of Commissioners’ practice did “in fact violate the Establishment Clause by advancing and endorsing Christianity to the exclusion of other faiths.”
The Establishment Clause refers to the first part of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which states “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion.”
Cauley said he and other city officials are putting together a “draft policy document” for the mayor and City Council.
“The City of Kinston already has a practice of inviting religious leaders of all faiths to provide the invocation at Council meetings,” the city attorney wrote. “Our draft policy would formalize that practice.”
Mayor B.J. Murphy said Kinston leaders “will continue prayers until we’re forced to stop.”
“All faiths are welcome, and as long as no one degrades another religion in the process they may pray before our meetings,” Murphy continued.
George Graham, chairman of the Lenoir County Board of Commissioners, said commissioners would continue to pray before meetings as they have in the past.
“I don’t see any reason, at this particular time, why we wouldn’t continue having prayer as part of our opening ceremony,” Graham said.
Prayers delivered before Kinston council meetings are given either by a visiting member of the clergy, or a council member. County commissioners typically lead the opening prayer before their meetings.
In both cases, prayers often have references to Christianity, such as ending with “in Jesus’ name, we pray.”
Lenoir County Attorney Robert Griffin said the second clause of the First Amendment, which bars the government from preventing the “free exercise” of religion, could protect commissioners who offer a prayer.
“The member does not give up their right for the free exercise of the religion, just by virtue of the fact that they have been elected to an office,” he said.
La Grange’s town attorney struggled to develop a neutral prayer, but advised the town board this week to go with a moment of silence before meetings.
The Craven County commissioners opened their meeting without a prayer this week.
The New Bern Sun-Journal contributed to this report. David Anderson can be reached at 252-559-1077 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at DavidFreePress.
To read the appeals court’s full ruling, search for ‘Joyner v. Forsyth County’ on the Internet.