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UU prevails in challenge to prayer at meetings

U.S. Supreme Court lets ruling stand that sectarian prayers violate separation of church and state.
By Donald E. Skinner
1.30.12

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Janet Joyner (fourth from left),

Janet Joyner (fourth from left), was the UU plaintiff in a case contesting the use of Christian prayer in public meetings. She is pictured outside the Fourth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond, Va., along with lawyers and supporters of the case. (ACLU of North Carolina)

The U.S. Supreme Court’s refusal Jan. 17 to hear a case involving a North Carolina county’s policy of relying on Christian prayers to open its meetings marks the end of a five-year legal battle initiated by a Unitarian Universalist in Winston-Salem, N.C.

Janet Joyner, a member of the UU Fellowship of Winston-Salem, was the plaintiff in the suit, Joyner v. Forsyth County. The case centered on the practice of the Forsyth County Board of Commissioners of opening its twice-monthly meetings with prayers that were consistently Christian. Joyner, who wanted all county residents to feel comfortable at board meetings, did some research and found clear evidence of Christian favoritism in the prayers.

In July, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit ruled 2-1 that the county’s use of sectarian prayer is a violation of the separation of church and state. The case was brought by Americans United, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), and the North Carolina ACLU.

Fourth District Judge J. Harvie Wilkinson III had written in July, “Citizens should come to public meetings confident in the assurance that government plays no favorites in matters of faith but welcomes the participation of all. As our nation becomes more diverse, so also will our faiths. To plant sectarian prayers at the heart of local government is a prescription for religious discord.”

Joyner, 76, said her interest in this issue began when members of the fellowship attended a series of meetings of the commission at a time when it was considering defunding a local health center for low-income people. “We attended to voice our opposition to that,” said Joyner, “and we began to notice how frequently the invocations were sectarian.”

She said she feels relieved that the case is over. At the same time she had hoped the Supreme Court would hear it so that the issue could be resolved nationally. “As it is, we’ve just resolved this for the states of the Fourth District. There are similar cases in other districts.”

She said the end of the case “has been a long time in coming. It’s been very divisive in our community, but it was a necessary fight to have. I’m exhausted and I hope we can move on to healing a community.” Her fellowship is part of an active interfaith group called CHANGE (Communities Helping All Neighbors Gain Empowerment), Joyner said. “We’re a force in the community. People do pay attention to us.”

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