WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. — The U.S. Supreme Court declined Tuesday to hear an appeal of a decision banning sectarian prayer at meetings of the Forsyth County Board of Commissioners, ending a nearly five-year legal saga.
The justices don’t comment on decisions not to hear cases, but supporters of the ruling by the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals hailed the highest court’s decision as a victory for First Amendment protections against government endorsing particular religions.
“Overtly sectarian prayer does not belong in a government meeting,” said Katy Parker, legal director for the North Carolina chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, one of the groups behind the lawsuit over the prayers.
The state and national ACLU, along with Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, filed suit in March 2007 on behalf of Janet Joyner and Constance Lynn Blackmon. The two Forsyth County residents objected to specifically Christian prayers being offered before county commission meetings.
Americans United said that between May 29, 2007, and Dec. 15, 2008, there were 33 prayers given before commission meetings, and 26 of them referred to Jesus, Jesus Christ, the Savior or the Trinity.
“All Americans ought to feel welcome at governmental meetings,” said the Rev. Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United, in a statement. “The Constitution clearly forbids government to play favorites when it comes to religion.”
The county board of commissioners appealed multiple lower court rulings that determined the explicitly sectarian prayers couldn’t be offered. It wasn’t clear how much money the litigation has cost the county since 2007, and calls to commissioners were not immediately returned Tuesday.
In the appeal of the 4th Circuit ruling which the Supreme Court ultimately declined to hear, the county commissioners were represented by the Alliance Defense Fund, which said the nation’s highest court missed an opportunity to clear up contradictory rulings by lower courts around the country.
“This means that, for the time being, the standard for prayer policies in the 4th Circuit will be different from the standard held by the rest of the country,” said David Cortman, senior counsel for the group.