In a remarkable 2-1 split decision, the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals (which presides over the four states of the Carolina’s and the Virginias) invalidated the policy of Forsyth County, NC that allowed prayers to be offered before meetings of the County Council. The court acknowledged that the county policy was “neutral and proactively inclusive.” However, it was struck down because the court found that the references to Jesus in the prayers offered by private citizens were too “frequent.”
The decision is troubling on many fronts. It is out of step with many other federal courts that have considered the validity of public invocations, including the United States Supreme Court. It ignores the religious heritage and history of our nation. But more troubling is the impact of the court’s decision on prayer itself. The court decision ignores a key purpose of a public invocation. It requires the government to censor private prayers and engage in comparative theology. The majority opinion punishes a county for the demographic make-up of the community and signals to people from many faith traditions that their prayers are not welcome.
In a series of short blogs I will explore some of the troubling aspects of the decision in Joyner v. Forsyth County, NC decided on July 29, 2011.
The majority opinion determined that occasional sectarian references are acceptable, but the court disapproved of a collection of prayers in which the “sectarian” references were too “frequent.” In practice, how can the county comply with the court’s ruling? The county can either ban “sectarian” references outright or stop them after the number of references approaches a mystery number that becomes too “frequent.” The impact of this rule is to categorically exclude people who believe that a prayer needs to reference the deity to whom it is directed from participating in the public invocation.
There are some Christian denominations that require a prayer to be offered in the name of Jesus. This belief is rooted in a theological understanding about the relationship between God and man. But the impact of the Majority’s opinion is not limited to Christians. For religions that worship many gods or goddesses, how does a prayer giver focus their petition? Unfortunately, the decision by the majority has sent a message to people whose faith requires them to pray in the name of Jesus or some other deity – you need not apply.
The majority opinion has unwittingly elevated and preferred the religious practices of those without a conviction concerning the naming of a deity above those who do not. The Constitution should respect the prayers of all citizens. The government has no business telling people how and to whom they can pray.
In the past four years, five different federal court cases have upheld public invocation policies like the one adopted Forsyth County. The decision of the 4th Circuit is out of step with these other federal courts and out of step with the U.S. Constitution.