RICHMOND, Va. — The Rutherford Institute has filed an amicus brief in the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit in defense of the historic practice of legislative prayer. The case before the appeals court, Joyner, et al. v. Forsyth County, N.C., involves a challenge to the Forsyth County Board of Commissioners’ tradition and policy of opening its meetings with a prayer. Although the board invited a variety of local religious leaders to offer the invocation, a federal district court ruled that practice unconstitutional. The Rutherford Institute brief supports the county’s appeal of that decision and asks that the board of commissioners’ policy be upheld.
A copy of the Institute’s amicus brief in Joyner, et al. v. Forsyth County, N.C. is available here.
“Prayers before legislative bodies are as old as the republic and were authorized by those who wrote the Constitution,” stated John W. Whitehead, president of The Rutherford Institute. “In this case, all religions are represented and, thus, it is clearly a constitutional practice.”
The Forsyth County Board of Commissioners has a tradition of opening their twice-monthly meetings with an invocation offered by local clergy. In March 2007, the American Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit on behalf of three county residents seeking to stop the practice of opening meetings with prayer, alleging that it violated the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.
In response, the Board adopted a written policy on its invocations which affirmed that the invocations were meant to solemnize the proceedings and offered for the benefit of the Board. Under the policy, the prayer is to be delivered by an invited local member of the clergy or religious leader. Invitations are sent to all religious congregations in the County as identified by research using telephone directories, the Internet and information from the local chamber of commerce. Any religious leader who accepts the invitation is allowed the opportunity to offer the invocation “according to the dictate’s of [the leader’s] own conscience.” The policy asks that those offering the invocation neither exploit the opportunity by attempting to convert others, nor disparage any faith or belief.
Notwithstanding the ecumenical and inclusive nature of the policy, the federal district court ruled that the policy was unconstitutional in its application because the majority of prayers offered were from Christian clergy. The Institute’s amicus brief argues that the district court’s decision constitutes an unprecedented restriction upon the well-established authority of local legislative bodies to open sessions with solemnizing prayers. The ruling “abandon[s] the practice of historical deference to the legislative branch in the conduct of its own business by ignoring the necessity of a threshold finding of improper motivation, exploitation or proselytization, or disparagement of one faith over another.”