An End to Sectarian Prayers in Forsyth County, and How Wiccans Have Shaped the Debate

Jason Pitzl-Waters —  January 19, 2012 — 8 Comments

On Tuesday the Supreme Court of the United States denied certiorari (judicial review) in the case of Forsyth County, North Carolina v. Joyner, which challenged the local government’s opening prayer policy. In this instance, Forsyth County had constructed an “inclusive” (and thus theoretically constitutionally protected) model where all comers could have a turn, but challengers to the policy noted that the prayers were overwhelmingly Christian, and created a chilling atmosphere towards non-Christian faiths.

On Joyner and Blackmon’s account, the overall atmosphere made them feel distinctly unwelcome and “coerced by [their] government into endorsing a Christian prayer.” Blackmon claimed that she felt compelled to stand and bow her head because of the Chair’s instruction to stand and because of the audience’s response. Joyner offered a similar account, believing that if she had failed to comply, it would have “negatively prejudice[d] consideration of [her] intended petition as a citizen appearing for public comment.” Both characterized the prayer as sectarian, with Blackmon referring to it as including a “one-minute sermon.”

During the period contested in the lawsuit, four-fifths of the prayers referred to “Jesus” in one form or another. The 4th Circuit made very clear that the lack of balance in presented prayers was an important factor in ruling that Forsyth’s policy violated the Establishment Clause.

The Lewis F. Powell, Jr., U.S. Courthouse
The Lewis F. Powell, Jr., U.S. Courthouse, home of the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals.

“…legislative prayer must strive to be nondenominational so long as that is reasonably possible — itshould send a signal of welcome rather than exclusion. Itshould not reject the tenets of other faiths in favor of just one.Infrequent references to specific deities, standing alone, donot suffice to make out a constitutional case. But legislativeprayers that go further — prayers in a particular venue that repeatedly suggest the government has put its weight behinda particular faith — transgress the boundaries of the Establishment Clause. Faith is as deeply important as it is deeply personal, and the government should not appear to suggestthat some faiths have it wrong and others got it right.”

This skirmish over prayer before government meetings is just the latest in a protracted struggle between the ACLU and the more socially conservative-minded Alliance Defense Fund. While the ACLU is generally skeptical of allegedly inclusive sectarian open prayer models, the Alliance Defense Fund believes them to be constitutionally protected, and part of America’s heritage. Responding to this setback, the ADF said that “the standard for prayer policies in the 4th Circuit will be different from the standard held by the rest of the country.”

“No federal court has ruled that prayers cannot be offered before public meetings. The Supreme Court has simply missed an opportunity to clear up the differing opinions among the various circuits about the content of the prayers. 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. ADF will continue to litigate in favor of the historical standard until the Supreme Court eventually hears a case that will clear up the confusion.”

The Alliance Defense Fund had a lot invested in this case, and other cases like this, as Forsyth was following their blueprint for protected government sectarian prayer. A blueprint partially constructed around two 4th Circuit cases involving public prayers and modern Pagans: Simpson v. Chesterfield County, the case that helped create the so-called “Wiccan-proof” invocation policy, and the Darla Wynne case, in which a Wiccan from South Carolina won a battle against sectarian government prayer. Despite the fact that towns like Greece, New York and Lancaster, California have won lower-court challenges by including a smattering of minority religions in sectarian prayers (aka the “include a Wiccan gambit”), the law isn’t settled on what, if any, formula for sectarian prayer at a government meeting will pass constitutional muster. It can be folly to read too much into a denied certiorari request, but by letting this decision stand, a decision that invokes both Simpson’s and Wynne’s cases, SCOTUS does leave the idea that balance is necessary in a sectarian prayer model on the table.

Cynthia Simpson and Darla Wynne

Cynthia Simpson and Darla Wynne

Eventually, SCOTUS will have to make a stand on these sectarian prayer policies, just as it recently took a stand on the question of “ministerial exception.” A concept that had been invoked several times in the lower courts, but never in our nation’s highest court. When it does, cases that involve Wiccans and other minority faiths will have a major influence on how that decision is made. In the meantime, Americans United, the ACLU, the Alliance Defense Fund, and several other advocacy groups, will try to build up their positions in the lower courts. No doubt several towns and cities who fall under the jurisdiction of the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals are currently talking with their lawyers over their prayer policies, and whether they need to include more Wiccans.

Jason Pitzl-Waters

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