Archives For Forsyth County

There are lots of articles and essays of interest to modern Pagans out there, sometimes more than I can write about in-depth in any given week. So The Wild Hunt must unleash the hounds in order to round them all up.

That’s it for now! Feel free to discuss any of these links in the comments, some of these I may expand into longer posts as needed.

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.

There’s been quite a bit of discussion this year concerning when sectarian prayers in the United States are permissible in a governmental setting. We’ve had the drama of the “Wiccan-proof” prayer policy in Frederick County, Maryland, and Lancaster, California’s voter-approved sectarian policy, which has withstood one legal challenge so far. Both of these prayer policies are hoping that a stated commitment to broad inclusion will protect them from litigation, but a new ruling in the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals seems to have thrown some doubt on the idea that simply saying you’re inclusive while showcasing predominantly sectarian Christian prayer is acceptable.

The 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals today ruled 2-1 that the Forsyth County Board of Commissioners’ preference for Christian prayers violates the constitutional separation of church and state. [...] The record in the case indicates that 26 of the 33 invocations given from May 29, 2007, until Dec. 15, 2008, contained at least one reference to Jesus, Jesus Christ, Christ, Savior or the Trinity. The appellate court majority said government favoritism in religion is wrong. “Faith is as deeply important as it is deeply personal,” wrote Judge J. Harvey Wilkinson, “and the government should not appear to suggest that some faiths have it wrong and others got it right.”

If this ruling should withstand a Supreme Court challenge, it could change the tactics of groups like the Alliance Defense Fund, a main proponent of the inclusive sectarian model. They know that these sorts of policies favor the religious majority, typically Christianity, and that religious minorities will be drowned out in a sea of invocations to Jesus. A point brought up in the 4th Circuit’s ruling.

…the Board clarified that the prayers were “not intended, and shall not be implemented or construed in any way, to affiliate the Board with, nor express the Board’s preference for, any faith or religious denomination.” Instead, the stated goal of the policy was to “acknowledge and express the Board’s respect for the diversity of religious denominations and faiths represented and practiced among the citizens of Forsyth County.” Despite that language, the prayers repeatedly continued to reference specific tenets of Christianity. These were not isolated occurrences: between May 29, 2007 and December 15, 2008, almost four-fifths of the prayers referred to “Jesus,” “Jesus Christ,” “Christ,” or “Savior.”

What’s the problem with this? It creates a environment of intimidation and unspoken preference for one religious point of view in a place that is supposed to serve and be open to all citizens regardless of their religious preferences.

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.”

This puts into doubt the legal fig-leaf of Lancaster, California’s token inclusion of non-Christians. While the court ruled that the prayer policy of the Forsyth County Board of Commissioners is not necessarily unconstitutional, the overwhelmingly Christian nature of the sectarian prayers helped “create an environment in which the government prefers — or appears to prefer — particular sects or creeds at the expense of others.” If your prayer policy is open, but 4/5′s of your prayers are to Jesus, then you’re creating an atmosphere of preference that (perhaps inadvertently) endorses one type of religiosity over another.

It should also be noted that the 4th Circuit’s decision referenced two cases they previously heard involving Pagans and prayer. Simpson v. Chesterfield County, the case that helped created the so-called “Wiccan-proof” prayer policy, and the Darla Wynne case, in which a Wiccan from South Carolina won a battle against sectarian government prayer. In fact, the Alliance Defense Fund’s “model invocation policy” was designed after these two cases involving Pagans and sectarian prayer earned national attention. So this is a new wrinkle of constitutional needle-threading that proponents of sectarian prayer at government meetings will have to address. The “include a Wiccan” gambit may not work if the rest of the prayers overwhelming endorse Christ. Will those who desperately want to invoke Jesus be able to stomach balancing that out with non-Christian prayers? Expect future challenges to address this very issue. Frederick County, Virginia may now technically be open to polytheist invocations, but they are under the 4th Circuit Court’s jurisdiction, so they better watch their balance.

The Winston-Salem Journal reports on a lawsuit between the American Civil Liberties Union of North Carolina (along with Americans United) and Forsyth County over their policy concerning prayer at county board meetings.

“The lawsuit challenges prayer practices at public meetings of the county board of commissioners. Commissioners invite various leaders to lead an opening invocation at their meetings twice a month. They do not dictate what speakers can and cannot say. In many cases, Christian leaders pray to Jesus or Jesus Christ.”

The article points out that two cases decided by the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals involving Wiccans and public prayer are crucial to understanding how this case will most likely resolve itself. The first was the Cynthia Simpson case, in which a Wiccan tried to obtain equal access to a rotating panel of religious leaders who gave sectarian prayers at local board of supervisors meetings.

“The Fourth Circuit says it’s constitutionally mandatory for a public school to give students proselytizing Christian flyers, yet it’s constitutionally okay for a local government to refuse to hear nondenominational prayers from denominations its board members dislike. In other words, potential discrimination against a Christian evangelical group is verboten, but outright and public discrimination against a Wiccan, offering up nondenominational prayers, is perfectly fine. Common sense dictates that these two decisions cannot be sustained simultaneously – especially if equality is a principle of value.” – Marci A. Hamilton, law professor and author of “God vs. the Gavel: Religion and the Rule of Law”

In that case Chesterfield County was able to “win” by changing the prayers from sectarian to nonsectarian during the litigation process. The 4th Circuit ruled that so long as the prayers remained nonsectarian the list of religious leaders was inclusive enough and did not have to include Simpson.

The second case involved Darla Wynne, a Wiccan who faced incredible persecution when she asked that city council prayers in Great Falls, South Carolina either include other non-Christian faiths or become nonsectarian.

“Now keep in mind, I am still going to the meetings and dealing with their nonsense over my bumper stickers. Then one day, I stop bowing my head and the council waits for me to bow my head. They point out that some people won’t participate in the prayer and of course, everyone turns to look at me and comments are made such as, ‘Satanist. If you don’t like things the way they are leave. We don’t want your kind here.’”Darla Wynne

In that instance the 4th Circuit ruled that prayers had to be nonsectarian. Great Falls tried to appeal that decision to the Supreme Court and lost, forcing the city to switch to nonsectarian prayer.

So it look very likely that Forsyth County will either have to become fully inclusive with their sectarian prayer (thus opening it to Wiccans or anyone else), or will have to switch to nonsectarian prayer. A legal situation that could only have happened because modern Pagans stood up for full religious equality under the law.