From the Department of Institutional Memory

by Brian Clarey

It all went down last week in pretty much the way we said it would when we editorialized about it back in March 2010, when the Forsyth County Commission decided to defend its right to begin meetings with a prayer, which about 80 percent of the time was directed toward Jesus.

In February 2010 the commission voted 4-3 to pursue an appeal on a US District Court judgment that decided the practice violated the First Amendment — which it clearly does, making the 4-3 vote a classic windmill tilt designed to… to what? To appease voters who don’t understand the Constitution? To distract from the real problems facing the county in Jesus’ name? To secure seats in heaven for four county commissioners?

Honestly we don’t know. Back in 2010 we called it “a study in fear and reactionary politics in the face of rapid change,” and we’ll stand by that for now.

Arguments began in May of this year to a three-judge panel in the 4th US Circuit Court of Appeals as to the meaning of the Establishment Clause in the First Amendment, the one that begins, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion…” and to the issue of legislative prayer.

The appeal was voted down last week. In its decision, the judges wrote, “[P]rayer in governmental settings carries risks….[I]t can create an environment in which the government prefers — or appears to prefer — particular sects or creeds at the expense of others…. Such conflict rends communities and does violence to the pluralistic and inclusive values that are a defining feature of American public life.”

And this is important: The judgment did not say that Forsyth County must not pray before its meetings. It said that all legislative prayer must be non-sectarian, excluding name-checks of particular deities and preference toward any one religion.

It reads, “The bar for Forsyth County is hardly a high one. Public institutions throughout this country manage to regularly commence proceedings with invocations that provide all the salutary benefits of legislative prayer without the divisive drawbacks of sectarianism…. That the Board and religious leaders in Forsyth County hold steadfast to their faith is certainly no cause for condemnation. But where prayer in public fora is concerned, the deep beliefs of the speaker afford only more reason to respect the profound convictions of the listener.”

Sounds reasonable, right? Not to the Forsyth County Commission, which voted 6-1 last night to take the case to the Supreme Court, no matter the time frame, no matter the cost.

And Jesus wept.

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