Lawmakers regularly pray in ways that prompted suit against county
Posted March 13, 2013
Raleigh, N.C. — The American Civil Liberties Union has sued the Rowan County Board of Commissioners for their use of sectarian Christian prayers to open their meetings.
The complaint, filed in U.S. District Court, accuses the board of violating the First Amendment provision ordaining the separation of church and state by routinely praying to Jesus Christ to start their meetings, The Associated Press reports.
Forsyth County lost a similar case last year when the ACLU challenged that board's use of sectarian prayers to open meetings.
It's worth noting, the ACLU warned the legislature to keep prayers at the General Assembly non-sectarian in 2012.
That's a warning lawmakers have roundly ignored.
"We just come before you with thanksgiving and praise for who you are and all that you have done at the cross to allow us to walk boldly up to your throne of grace," Rep. Susan Martin, R-Wilson, prayed before the House session Wednesday, offering one of the few recent prayers that didn't mention Jesus by name.
On Tuesday, Rep. Jacqueline Michelle Schaffer, R-Mecklenburg, offered what has become standard fare over the last three years.
"We thank you so much for all that you've given us, for this opportunity and also for your gift of salvation through your son, Jesus Christ. It is in his name that we pray," Schaffer prayed on Tuesday.
Senate Chaplin Peter Milner regularly opens that chamber's sessions with explicitly Christian prayers.
The Fourth Circuit has not banned all prayers before government proceedings. The court wrote in the Forsyth County case:
"In sum, invocations at the start of legislative sessions can solemnize those occasions; encourage participants to act on their noblest instincts; and foster the humility that recognition of a higher hand in human affairs can bring. There is a clear line of precedent not only upholding the practice of legislative prayer, but acknowledging the ways in which it can bring together citizens of all backgrounds and encourage them to participate in the workings of their government."
But it added that prayers favoring one religion over another were unconstitutional. To that point, the court wrote:
"To plant sectarian prayers at the heart of local government is a prescription for religious discord. ...where prayer in public fora is concerned, the deep beliefs of the speaker afford only more reason to respect the profound convictions of the listener. Free religious exercise posits broad religious tolerance."