A decision last Friday by the Fourth U.S. Circuit Court in Winston Salem, NC has given local activist and former Rock Hall Council Candidate Gren Whitman another leg to stand on in his effort to end the reciting of the Lord’s Prayer at the onset of Rock Hall Council meetings.
The court ruled in Janet Joyner, et al. v. Forsyth County that sectarian prayer in government functions violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to the US Constitution.
In an email to Rock Hall Mayor Bob Willis, Whitman attached a copy of the decision and reiterated his hope that the council will honor his request to end the practice of “sectarian” prayer at the onset of Council meetings.
“I pass this on to help you make a rational decision with regard to my request that you stop reciting the Lord’s Prayer at Rock Hall Town Council meetings,” Whitman wrote in his email to Willis. “It is my opinion that the Protestant and the Catholic versions of the Lord’s Prayer — taken from the Gospel of St. Matthew — are sectarian. Reciting the Protestant version, as you do, can be considered an affront to Catholics, non-Christians, and Christians such as I who think the Constitution rules out sectarian prayers at public meetings.”
The court decision last Friday found in favor of the plaintiffs, Janet Joyner and Constance Blackmon of Forsyth County, NC, who objected to “sectarian prayers” at the opening of Forsyth County Commissioner’s meetings. The ACLU filed the lawsuit on behalf of Joiner and Blackmon in 2007.
“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,” said the plaintiff, Constance Blackmon.
Writing for the 2-1 majority, James Harvie Wilkinson III, a Reagan appointee, wrote:
“Because religious belief is so intimate and so central to our being, government advancement and effective endorsement of one faith carries a particular sting for citizens who hold devoutly to another.”
In a phone interview on Tuesday, Rock Hall Mayor Robert Willis said Monday’s meeting heard feedback from the community and most of the citizens in attendance were in support of continuing the tradition of the Lord’s Prayer.
“We are still discussing how we’re going to move forward on this and we had about 50 people turn out,” Willis said. “The majority of the people there were in support of seeing the town continue the Lord’s prayer. There were about a half a dozen people who objected.”
Willis said the council went into closed session to discuss the matter with the town attorney.
“We got legal advice basically reviewing case law,” Willis said. “At this point we haven’t really come out with any decision. We’re still contemplating the best way to address this.”
Willis said the Whitman’s desire to have non-sectarian prayer is also being addressed through consultation with the citizens and church leaders to see if a non-sectarian prayer can accommodate everyone. But Willis also conceded that the courts may have the ultimate decision.
“This may be something the town will ultimately be told it can’t do.”
Whitman responded “that the United States Constitution already tells the Town of Rock Hall that it cannot recite the Lord’s Prayer at its public meetings. There should be absolutely no debate on this question and that is why I did not attend the public meeting last night.”