The North Carolina chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union and Americans United for Separation of Church and State praised the decision as a victory for the First Amendment.
The high court's decision Tuesday (Jan. 17) leaves in place a federal appeals court ruling that held that the predominantly Christian prayers at the start of commission meetings violated the First Amendment.
The court found that more than three-quarters of the 33 invocations given before meetings between May 2007 and December 2008 referred to "Jesus," "Jesus Christ," "Christ" or "Savior."
That, according to the court, was a problem.
"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," Fourth Circuit Judge J. Harvey Wilkinson wrote in the July 29 court ruling. The three-judge panel split, 2-1.
Americans United Executive Director Barry Lynn hailed the Supreme Court's decision not to consider the case. His organization was one of the groups sponsoring the lawsuit.
"When government meetings are opened regularly with Christian prayer, it sends the unmistakable message that non-Christians are second-class citizens in their own community," Lynn said in a statement. "That's unconstitutional, and it's just plain wrong."
But David Cortman, an attorney representing Forsyth County, said the ruling makes Christians second-class citizens.
"That's what this case shows," said Cortman, an attorney with the Alliance Defense Fund. "We believe the Supreme Court has missed an opportunity to clear up the differing opinions among the various circuit courts. It really is disappointing."
The decision means prayers are still allowed, but the county must police the words to make sure one faith group is not represented over another faith group.
"America's founders never shied away from referencing the God to whom they were praying when offering public invocations; the citizens of Forsyth County should have this same opportunity," Cortman wrote in a statement. "No federal court has ruled that prayers cannot be offered before public meetings."
Todd Starnes is host of Fox News & Commentary, heard daily on Fox News Radio stations around the nation. He is the author of "They Popped My Hood and Found Gravy on the Dipstick" and "Dispatches From Bitter America." This article first appeared at www.toddstarnes.com. Used by permission. With reporting from the Associated Press
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