In a case that could have implications for the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners invocation, on Jan. 28 a federal judge found that the use of a sectarian prayer to open a public meeting violates the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.
"The Court concludes that the invocation Policy, as implemented, has resulted in Government-sponsored prayers that advance a specific faith or belief and have the effect of affiliating the Government with that particular faith or belief," U.S. District Court Judge James Beaty wrote in the ruling.
The plaintiffs in the case, two Forsyth County residents represented by the state chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union and the Winston-Salem chapter of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, declared the ruling a victory in an announcement from the ACLU.
"I am very happy with the Court's ruling today because this court order preserves freedom of conscience for people of all different beliefs, whether they are in the majority or the minority, by requiring our government to remain neutral in matters of religion," Constance Blackmon, one of the plaintiffs, said of the ruling.
Since 1989, the Buncombe commissioners have opened their meetings with a prayer, almost always of the Christian variety. In December, after a magistrate ruled in the plaintiffs' favor in the Forsyth case, Buncombe County legal staff informed the board that the county's prayer policy is almost identical to Forsyth's, and could leave Buncombe vulnerable if the lawsuit went against the commissioners there.
While a leaked memo from Buncombe County Attorney Michael Frue originally indicated that the county might switch to a moment of silence, this was not the case. The commissioners stated they would take up the matter at their Jan. 5 meeting, but reversed course and decided over the holidays, via a series of phone calls between individual commissioners, to keep the policy as it is until the Forsyth case was decided.
The ruling hasn't yet caused the county to reconsider its own prayer, Frue tells Xpress. "I haven't had a chance to advise [the board] on the ruling yet, or discuss it," Frue says. "The prayer's not really an official policy; it's more of a custom, but it is something we'll need to discuss." The city of Asheville is also reviewing its prayer policy.