On the Front Lines of the Culture Wars

North Carolina’s Forsyth County Board of Commissioners was wrong to allow opening prayers that end “in Jesus’ name,” a federal appeals court has ruled.

In a 2-1 decision, the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond, Va., has ruled in favor of two county residents who complained that they were offended at hearing “in Jesus’ name” in a public prayer. 

Janet Joyner and Constance Blackmon sued after a local religious leader offered a prayer before a December 2007 commission meeting. In that prayer, he thanked God for allowing the birth of His son to forgive us for our sins and closed with the standard “in Jesus’ name,” which Christians are taught to do in the Gospel of John 14:13-14 by Jesus himself.

The federal decision upholds a lower court ruling.

“Legislative prayer must strive to be nondenominational so long as that is reasonably possible — it should send a signal of welcome rather than exclusion. It should not reject the tenets of other faiths in favor of just one,” Judge J. Harvie Wilkinson III wrote in his ruling.

Judge Paul Niemeyer disagreed, writing in his dissent that Forsyth County allowed believers of any religious faith to give the opening prayer, negating the effect of having a prayer champion only one set of beliefs.

“I respectfully submit that we must maintain a sacred respect of each religion, and when a group of citizens comes together, as does the Forsyth County Board of Commissioners, and manifests that sacred respect — allowing the prayers of each to be spoken in the religion’s own voice — we must be glad to let it be,” Niemeyer wrote.

“The ACLU and Americans United for Separation of Church and State argued (naturally) that sectarian prayers to any deity violate the First Amendment,” observed the Christian advocacy group Vision to America, which also noted:

The First Amendment offers no such prohibition since it only restricts “Congress” from making any law “respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof. . .” There is no prohibition directed at the states and their counties. In fact, the Bill of Rights was added to the Constitution at the insistent of the states in order to protect them from federal encroachment. Both the language of the First Amendment and example of the state constitutions support this claim.

Article XIX of North Carolina’s 1776 Constitution reads, “All men have a natural and unalienable right to worship God according to the dictates of their own consciences.” Article XXXII is specifically Christian in stating the following qualifications for public officers in the state: “No person who shall deny the being of God, or the truth of the Protestant religion, or the divine authority of the Old or New Testaments, or who shall hold religious principles incompatible with the freedom and safety of the State, shall be capable of holding any office or place of trust or profit in the civil department within this State.”

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