Battle Escalates over Sectarian Prayers at North Carolina County Commission Meetings

By Conn, Joseph L. | Church & State, April 2010 | Go to article overview

Battle Escalates over Sectarian Prayers at North Carolina County Commission Meetings


Conn, Joseph L., Church & State


For Steve Weston, the Feb. 22 session of the Forsyth County (N.C.) Board of Commissioners was deeply troubling.

Over 800 fired-up church-goers descended on the government center in Winston-Salem and quickly turned a public gathering into a fundamentalist religious service.

"They gave their personal testimonies," Weston said. "They sang hymns, and some shouted, 'If you don't want to pray, just leave.'"

The show of religious force, coupled with behind-the-scenes political maneuvers, worked. The board voted 4-3 to appeal a federal court ruling against sectarian invocations at commissioners' sessions.

"I was hopeful the commissioners would do the right thing," said Weston, president of the Winston-Salem chapter of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, "but I'm not surprised that they didn't. It all boiled down to local politics."

All four Republicans on the commission voted to appeal Judge James H. Beaty's decision that found officially sanctioned Christian prayers to violate church-state separation. Three Democrats voted against the move.

The swing vote was Chairman David Plyler, a moderate Republican.

Plyler had been on the fence for weeks and seemed to be leaning against taking the dispute to the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. He worried that the court costs could be a tremendous burden on taxpayers if the appeal is unsuccessful.

After the recent vote, Plyler told the Winston-Salem Journal that he had come "this close"--holding his fingers about an inch apart--to siding against an appeal.

"I don't think we need to be in this suit," he said, "but in politics you need to compromise and work together."

Backroom negotiations seem to have played a role in the outcome of the vote.

The Rev. Steve Corts, a Southern Baptist minister who has spearheaded support for the commission's overtly Christian prayers, committed to providing at least $300,000 in donated money to pay the county's legal costs, if it loses on appeal.

Corts leads the Partnership for Religious Liberty, a group of Baptist clergy and their allies, that has agitated on behalf of sectarian invocations.

Pastor of the Center Grove Baptist Church in Clemmons, Corts had also issued a less-than-subtle political threat to Plyler. In a news conference, he said the wavering commission chairman should come down on the side of an appeal "because the political ramifications are going to be serious."

The acrimonious legal and political battle in Forsyth has become a microcosm of the "culture war" under way in many communities across America. On one side are arrayed Religious Right groups, affiliated clergy and their congregations and politicians who support their agenda. Across the divide are civil liberties groups, progressive clergy, religious minorities and individual citizens who support church-state separation.

The conflict dates to 2007 when the North Carolina affiliate of the American Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit challenging the commission's sectarian invocations. Plaintiffs included Janet Joyner and Constance Blackmon, two members of the local Americans United chapter.

"For a Christian to presume to tell a Buddhist, Muslim, Jew or anyone in whose name to pray clearly crosses the line." Joyner said. "For government to show preference or favoritism is against the law, and I expect my officials and our leaders, whether spiritual or political, to obey the law."

Joyner and Blackmon won a key victory last November when U.S. Magistrate Judge P. Trevor Sharp issued a finding in Joyner v. Forsyth County that the county's prayer policy violates the Constitution. Sharp pointed to the record in the case, which showed 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.

On Jan. …

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