The longstanding practice of opening Charlotte-area government meetings with a Christian prayer has come under increasing attack by residents and outside groups.
It’s a battle that is also unfolding from California to New York, and the issue is now before the U.S. Supreme Court.
The First Amendment’s Establishment Clause prohibits the government from favoring one religion over another. When government prayers invoke Jesus, civil liberties groups and other critics say it violates constitutional rights.
The Wisconsin-based Freedom From Religion Foundation has been pressing that case in Union County and other communities.
While removing sectarian references resolves the legal issues, the foundation believes “the best policy is to remove prayer altogether, so that meetings no longer contain exclusionary religious rituals,” said Patrick Elliott, the group’s staff attorney.
In response to the legal challenges, some Charlotte-area boards switched to silent or nonsectarian prayers that don’t mention a specific religion. But other boards have refused to stop mentioning Jesus, despite the threat of legal action.
That threat could get expensive.
Forsyth County’s losing battle on the prayer issue put it on the hook for nearly $250,000 in its opponents’ legal fees, although a local group raised money to cover the costs, County Manager Dudley Watts said.
In Rowan County, a federal judge issued an injunction last month that blocked commissioners from offering prayers specific to one religion. (The county’s legal fees up to now were not available.)
The injunction followed a lawsuit by the American Civil Liberties Union for residents who said the Christian prayers violated their rights. The suit alleged that 97 percent of the commissioners’ meetings over the past five years opened with sectarian prayer.
On Monday afternoon, at their first meeting since the injunction, Rowan commissioners said they would comply with the ruling while a related case is heard by the U.S. Supreme Court. The board went behind closed doors to pray so it would not violate the injunction.
Nan Lund, one of the three plaintiffs in the case, said sectarian prayer violates the law.
Further, she said, it’s uncomfortable and unwelcoming to people who don’t subscribe to those beliefs.
“Elected officials are sworn to uphold the law,” Lund said. “I’d like to think I live in a county where officials do that.”
Representing 98 percent
In Lincoln County, commissioners open meetings with prayers that “follow the letter of the law,” board Chairman Alex Patton said. The board had been naming “Jesus” but stopped “on advice of our attorney,” Patton said.
“I can word a prayer that says the same thing as before, but make it legal.”
Patton said a prayer opponent had videotaped board invocations and asked the commissioners to stop them.
The overwhelming majority of Lincoln County churches are Christian, Patton said.
When the invocation is offered, “We’re representing 98 percent of the citizens. No one from the majority has complained.”
Patton said the board had “strongly considered” fighting the issue and spending the money on legal fees if necessary.
“We felt like we could do the same thing and accomplish the same thing instead of going down that road,” he said. “We were basically following other counties already in litigation. I felt like I knew how it would turn out.”
Threats of a lawsuit
In Union County, a resident complained to Freedom From Religion Foundation about commissioners and guest speakers frequently invoking Jesus during invocations.
In February, the foundation told the county it might sue if the board continued that practice.
When the group renewed its objections in early May, board Chairman Jerry Simpson said commissioners knew that nonsectarian prayers were acceptable to the courts and said “that is what we are making an effort to do.”
But, he said, the board would not adopt a formal policy.
From May to July, only one of five county meetings has had a prayer with Jesus’ name.
Elliott, the foundation’s attorney, said the group will continue to watch the county’s actions.
Stallings, in western Union County, still has some council members who invoke Jesus, Mayor Lynda Paxton said.
The board has had several discussions on the issue after Rowan’s litigation, she said, but members are unwilling to change their practice.
“I think we’re living kind of dangerously,” Paxton said.
Councilman Wyatt Dunn, a Christian who has used Jesus’ name at invocations, said he won’t change the way he prays at meetings.
“This is freedom of religion,” he said. “If a Muslim or Buddhist is on the council, they can pray to whomever they want to. It’s an individual choice.”
Courts have their say
Forsyth County used to open its meetings in Winston-Salem with prayers by visiting pastors, who frequently invoked Jesus. Several county residents sued in 2007.
In 2011, the U.S. Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled against the county.
“Sectarian prayers… (run) afoul of the promise of public neutrality among faiths that resides at the heart of the First Amendment’s religion causes,” the court majority wrote.
A conservative Christian legal group handled the county’s defense.
Individual commissioners now offer invocations before their meetings officially start and do not mention any deities, said Watts, the county manager.
Elsewhere around the country, lawsuits challenging prayer practices surfaced over the past few years in several states, including Florida, Tennessee, Delaware, Georgia, New York and California.
The U.S. Supreme Court declined last year to hear Forsyth County’s appeal, but the issue reached the high court from another case.
In May, the court agreed to hear a challenge to prayers at meetings in Greece, N.Y., outside Rochester.
It’s the first time in 30 years the high court has tackled such a case.
Staff Writer Joe Marusak contributed