Published 12:00 am Wednesday, February 22, 2012

By Katy Parker
ACLU of North Carolina
Earlier this year, the U.S. Supreme Court announced it would not review a lower court’s ruling that the Forsyth County Board of Commissioners violated the Constitution by opening more than three-quarters of meetings with sectarian prayers that were specific to one religion, Christianity. As that ruling affirmed, the Constitution guarantees every American freedom of speech and religion, but it also prohibits the government from endorsing one religion over others — a vital principle for ensuring that all citizens, and not just a preferred religious group, feel welcome and part of their government.
Since the Supreme Court allowed the Forsyth ruling to stand, the American Civil Liberties Union of North Carolina has communicated with local governments all across the state to make sure they comply with the law by adopting more inclusive prayer policies. Already, more than 15 cities or counties have voluntarily ended their sectarian prayer practices in favor of a nonsectarian prayer or moment of silence that is more welcoming to all members of the community, regardless of their private religious beliefs or lack thereof.
The Rowan County Board of Commissioners appears to be resisting the change, with members recently saying they will continue to hold divisive and illegal sectarian prayers on government time regardless of court rulings or the interests of religious minorities. Unfortunately, most of the arguments used by those who support continuing sectarian prayers have relied on three incorrect claims.
First, some argue that requiring prayers on government time to refrain from endorsing a specific religion violates the religious freedom of those leading the prayers. However, there is a crucial difference between private and government speech. Private individuals have a right to prayer however they choose — and the ACLU has defended that right on countless occasions. But when that prayer is sponsored by a government in order to open a public meeting for citizens of all faiths and beliefs, courts have agreed that the prayer constitutes government speech, in part because the prayer is meant to solemnize the meeting and the business at hand. In order for all citizens to participate equally in their government without feeling alienated or excluded, the law wisely requires the government to stay neutral on matters of faith and, therefore, keep the prayer nonsectarian.
Second, some critics have accused the ACLU of being “anti-Christian” or motivated by an objection to the free exercise of religion. That claim couldn’t be further from the truth. Indeed, the ACLU spends a great deal of time and money defending Americans’ rights to free speech and free exercise of religion. The ACLU has defended the rights of evangelical Christians to preach on the sidewalks of the Las Vegas Strip, negotiated with local authorities on behalf of Baptist preachers who were refused permission to perform baptisms in a Virginia, and even helped the Rev. Jerry Falwell win a 2002 lawsuit challenging an unconstitutional provision in the Virginia Constitution that prohibited religious organizations from incorporating. Locally, some readers may remember when the ACLU of North Carolina defended a man in 2008 who was kicked off a Raleigh city bus for reading his Bible. In truth, the ACLU works to guarantee that all are free to follow and practice their faith — or no faith at all — without government interference.
Lastly, some have claimed that no one is harmed by government-sponsored sectarian prayer. Such statements display a tremendous disregard for the views of religious minorities seeking unbiased treatment from their government. In the Forsyth County case, our plaintiffs — two lifelong residents of Winston-Salem — attended the meeting to discuss a local item on the board’s agenda, but were first asked by the board chair to stand and bow their heads while a pastor read a sectarian prayer. The overall atmosphere made the women feel not only unwelcome but “coerced” by their government into endorsing the prayer. One believed that refusing to participate would have a negative impact on the business that they, as citizens, were bringing before their elected representatives.
As concluded by the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals, this constituted real harm because “Faith is as deeply important as it is deeply personal, and the government should not appear to suggest that some faiths have it wrong and others got it right.”
Only when the government remains neutral on matters of faith, and does not give special treatment to one religion over others, can all citizens’ equally receive the protections of individual religious liberty afforded by the Constitution. By continuing to hold government-sponsored sectarian prayer, the Commissioners are not only violating the law, but making Rowan County less welcoming to religious minorities and to the constitutional principle of religious freedom.
Katy Parker is legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of North Carolina.