ACLU Targets Prayer at the Legislature

Special Report - February 6, 2012

The American Civil Liberties Union of North Carolina Legal Foundation (ACLU-NCLF) is using the U.S. Supreme Court’s recent decision not to hear an appeal of a lower court ruling in the Forsyth County public prayer case to attack the General Assembly’s historical practice of opening legislative sessions with uncensored prayers. The North Carolina Senate has a chaplain who offers prayers at the opening of each session, while the House recently has had various lawmakers offer the opening prayer. In a letter sent to Attorney General Roy Cooper on February 2, the ACLU-NCLF refers to “complaints” it has received that “the significant majority of these legislative prayers are explicitly sectarian and favor one religion, Christianity.” It urges the General Assembly to “adopt a policy to ensure that the NCGA halts the practice of opening sessions with sectarian invocations.”

The letter points to a July 2011 ruling by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit, which upheld a district court decision that Forsyth County’s policy allowing sectarian prayers before government meetings is unconstitutional. As we previously reported, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear an appeal of the Fourth Circuit decision in the Forsyth County prayer case earlier this month, even though the ruling conflicts with previous rulings about public prayer by the Eighth and Eleventh Circuit Courts. The letter from the ACLU-NCLF, which is copied to House Speaker Thom Tillis and Senate President Pro Tempore Phil Berger, asks that Attorney General Cooper notify the ACLU-NCLF of the “proposed course of action” by February 17.

According to the Associated Press, House Speaker Tillis said he would look into the complaint from the ACLU-NCLF. “The ACLU has an affinity for pushing a radical, far-left agenda that is out of touch with most North Carolinians,” House Speaker Tillis said in a statement. “The same Constitution that prohibits government-sponsored religion also protects the right of individuals to exercise their faith as they so choose.”

In response to the ACLU-NCLF letter, the Alliance Defense Fund (ADF), a Christian civil liberties group that defended the Forsyth County prayer policy before the district court and the Fourth Circuit, cautioned lawmakers in North Carolina from being “pressured into censoring legislative prayers” and noted that “opening legislative sessions with a prayer is a time honored tradition that predates this nation.” In an emailed statement to the North Carolina Family Policy Council, Brett Harvey, senior legal counsel for ADF, acknowledged the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals decision limiting sectarian prayers at government meetings. “But it is important to note the court reaffirmed the value and constitutionality of legislative prayer. Although the court warned of ‘sectarian’ references becoming too frequent, the court acknowledged that occasional references do not violate the Constitution,” Harvey wrote. “The elected officials of North Carolina should not be pressured into censoring legislative prayers by imposing a blanket proscription on all ‘sectarian’ references. Depending on the diversity and content of prayers offered at the state house, there may be no need to make any changes to their practice and policies. Each situation must be carefully evaluated, and the Alliance Defense Fund is willing to work with North Carolina officials to ensure that their practices comply with the standards set by the courts, and defend this cherished tradition in court if necessary.”

Related Resources:
Pastor Challenges Prayer Policy - July 12, 2010

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