Ban on Prayer Before Forsyth Co. Commissioners Meetings Lifted

WINSTON-SALEM—Both sides claimed victory in the less than one hour hearing in U.S. District Court in Winston-Salem.

“I think it was a great victory,’’ said Bill Whiteheart, a Forsyth County commissioner.

“As you recall, when the court was called in session, she said ‘God save the United States.’”

The county was sued in 2007 over ministers’ giving prayers before meetings.

A 2010 injunction barred the practice on constitutional grounds.

This year the U.S. Supreme Court ruled such prayers were legal in Greece, New York, because the town had an inclusive policy.

The American Civil Liberties Union of N.C. had sought to have the injunction modified.

“On the one hand, we’re disappointed that the injunction was dissolved today, but on the other hand, we are heartened that the judge was so very clear in warning the county that it could not discriminate,” said Chris Brook, the ACLU’s legal director in the state.

Saying the ruling in New York changed the law, county attorneys asked that the injunction be dissolved.

After hearing oral arguments, Judge James Beaty ruled that the injunction would be dissolved, but cautioned the county to be more inclusive.

“I think by the fact the judge lifted the injunction, he’s saying that our policy is a good policy the way it is and just be careful how we go forward,” said county commissioner Mark Baker.

The ACLU says it’ll continue to monitor the county’s meeting.

“We had been arguing that the county not discriminate against religious minorities, or non-believers in the invocation policy that they have,’’ said Brook.

Some spectators were on hand for personal reasons.

“Of course, our main concern was that Christians be able to pray in the name of Jesus Christ,’’ said Jeff Baity, with Berean Baptist Church.

Commissioners say the newly elected board will have to consider changes but still expect the majority of prayers to be Christian.

“Just by the sheer mathematical percentages of the cultural, religious makeup of Forsyth County, I think you could expect that to be the fact,’’ said Whiteheart.

The next scheduled full meeting of the commissioners is Monday.

The new board will be sworn in on Dec. 1.

– Bob Costner

Student Prayer Bill Loosens Religious Restrictions on Teachers, Coaches

RALEIGH – A bill moving through the North Carolina General Assembly was designed to protect students’ rights to pray or participate in religious activities at school, but critics say it could create an uncomfortable environment for other students.

One of the bill’s sponsors, Sen. Ralph Hise, a Republican representing Mitchell County in Western N.C., said the bill stemmed from a situation in his district, where an elementary school student wrote a poem for a school assignment about her grandfather’s experience serving in the Vietnam War. In the poem, she told of how her grandfather prayed to God for protection. Hise said because of the religious reference, the teacher wouldn’t allow the student to present her poem to the class.

Now, state lawmakers want to make sure efforts to keep church and state separate don’t prevent students from expressing or practicing their religion.

“Coaches and teachers and others [are] coming forward who are being told they can’t even be present when students are praying or they can’t be respectful of what students are doing when they’re expressing their religious faith,” Hise said. “That’s why this bill became necessary, so we could make clear the school boards across the state don’t have policies that prohibit someone from expressing their religious views.”

The bill says students at school may pray, talk about religion, distribute religious literature, organize prayer groups and express religious beliefs in their school work.

The bill also allows school staff to voluntarily participate in student-initiated religious activities on campus before or after school and school employees supervising extracurricular activities, including coaches, can be present and “respectful” while students pray.

“The specific wording says teachers may have a respectful posture to students going, so if a student is praying or others, the teacher may feel free to stand silently or bow their head, but they can’t be involved or in leading those operations,” Hise said.

But the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) says having teachers and school staff involved could lead to violations of the Constitution.

“If a group of students on a team wanted to pray, that’s fine,” said ACLU Policy Director Sarah Preston. “The problem is when you start to have teachers being involved in that somehow. It really does convey the message to the students that they are approving of and endorsing one religion over another religion, and so if you do have people on the team who are of a minority belief, they’re going to feel left out.”

“If this really encourages more of that teacher involvement, more school personnel involvement or coach involvement, you’re really, I think, going to have students with different beliefs feeling sort of like the school and the teachers are not respecting their beliefs,” she added.

The “Respect for Student Prayer/Religious Activity” bill has passed through both chambers of the General Assembly, but the House made some changes, so now it goes back to the Senate for approval, where it’s had unanimous support to date.

It’s expected to pass again and then go to the governor to sign into law. The ACLU says if that happens, the law will likely be challenged in court.

– Heather Moore

Rowan Co. commissioners unanimously vote to fight ACLU sectarian prayer lawsuit

ROWAN COUNTY—The Rowan County Commissioners voted unanimously Monday to fight the ACLU’s lawsuit that alleges the commissioners’ use of Christian prayer before meetings violates the First Amendment.

More than 100 people attended the commissioners meeting Monday, the first meeting since the ACLU filed its lawsuit last week.

The commissioners began the meeting just like they had countless others, by praying to Jesus Christ. The majority of the people in the room stood up and prayed right along with them.

More than 20 people spoke at the meeting, most of them in favor of keeping Christian prayer as a part of the county government.

But not everyone agrees. The plaintiffs in the ACLU’s lawsuit, who are not Christian, said the prayer makes them feel unwelcome and ostracized by their officials. They’re asking the commissioners to make the prayers more inclusive of other religions.

The commissioners said they will hire a law firm within the next couple of days.