Why government neutrality ensures religious liberty and inclusiveness

Why government neutrality ensures religious liberty and inclusiveness

- in Progressive Voices

There has been a lot of talk recently about “partisan bickering” and what it is that divides us in this state and in this country.

One of the many issues that very often come up during such discussions is the role that religion should play in making policy, including the issue of government prayer. Many governing bodies, from local county commissions to the North Carolina General Assembly to Congress open their legislative meetings with a prayer. The question seems to be whether that prayer should be sectarian – directed to one particular deity – or non-sectarian as the Supreme Court has said the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause requires.

Legislative prayer is completely lawful. However, sectarian legislative prayer is not. As the conservative United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit has recognized, the role that legislative prayer plays is to solemnize the occasion. Such prayer is “not intended for the exchange of views or other public discourse [or] for the exercise of one’s religion.” This conclusion was recently confirmed by the court in the case of Joyner v. Forsyth County.

Sectarian legislative prayer is unlawful because government speech – not private speech – is at issue. And when the government is speaking, it has the obligation to avoid endorsing one particular religion over another. The Supreme Court has made it clear that “[w]hatever else the Establishment Clause may mean…, it certainly means at the very least that government may not demonstrate a preference for one particular sect or creed (including a preference for Christianity over other religions).”

It is to ensure that government bodies are inclusive of (and toward) all North Carolinians that the American Civil Liberties Union of North Carolina fought for Janet Joyner and Connie Blackmon, two Forsyth County residents who regularly attend County Commissioner meetings.

Back in 2007, Janet and Connie attended several meetings, hoping to make comments and affect decision making about issues important to them, but they were first asked to stand for prayer – prayer invoking clearly Christian ideology. Because she knew that her beliefs did not comport with the majority of the commissioners, Janet actually made the decision not to speak for fear her comments would ultimately do harm to the issue. Both women described feeling alienated and excluded by their government, and both commented that it made them reluctant to attend future commissioner meetings.

Of course, the avoidance of the use of sectarian prayer by government is not just a demand of our Constitution; it is the best public policy too. Such a policy, is not only respectful of the variety of religious viewpoints represented by legislators themselves, but it also provides an inclusive environment for those visiting the legislative body, visitors who are often asked to stand and participate in the opening prayer.

Such a policy advances the ideal set forth by the Fourth Circuit of “transcending denominational boundaries and appealing broadly to the aspirations of all citizens.” Rather than alienating or dividing guests and legislators based on religious belief, a policy against sectarian prayer will allow for the work of the governing body to be solemnized while also uniting guests and legislators alike around common goals and aspirations.

As Judge Wilkinson, writing for the Fourth Circuit in the Joyner case, so aptly noted, “Faith is as deeply important as it is deeply personal, and the government should not appear to suggest that some faiths have it wrong and others got it right.”

To which people of all different faiths and non-faith-based belief systems ought to say: “Amen.”

Sarah Preston is the Policy Director for the American Civil Liberties Union of North Carolina.