The American Civil Liberties Union is asking the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals to stop a suburban Atlanta county from opening its meetings with prayers that mention “Jesus” or other “sectarian” references, claiming the invocations represent government favoritism of Christianity.
The three-judge panel of the court, however, was immediately skeptical of how the ACLU expected prayers to be crafted without appering to favor one religion over another.
“What about King of Kings?” Judge Bill Pryor asked ACLU lawyer Daniel Mach in the case’s hearing last week. “Is that sectarian?”
“What about Lord of Lords?” Pryor persisted, interrupting the ACLU lawyer’s arguments. “The God of Abraham? … What about the God of Abraham, Moses, Jesus and Muhammad?”
Judge Charles Wilson wondered just how far Mach was suggesting the county go in editing people’s prayers.
“As a practical matter, how do you draw the line?” Wilson asked.
He also asked what steps the ACLU suggested the Cobb County, Ga., board of commissioners take before its regulation became “some sort of censorship” or “just government prayer.”
At one point in the hearing, ACLU attorney Mach pointed out that the invitations Cobb County sends to guest clergy already ask that the prayers not proselytize or disparage other religions. According to the Associated Press, Mach suggested that the invitations simply be amended to ask the clergy to refrain from invoking “religious messages” at all.
Cobb County attorney David Walbert countered that such restrictions would make it a “virtual impossibility” for clergy to draft any kind of meaningful prayer.
Liberty Legal Institute Chief Counsel Kelly Shackleford was indignant about the ACLU asking clergy to pray without “invoking religious messages.”
“I think this is really where you pull the cover off and see what you’re really looking at with the ACLU,” Shackelford told OneNewsNow. “This is religious bigotry; it’s anti-free speech; it’s everything that they’re supposed to be against.”
“The government really has no business telling anybody how they should or should not pray,” Shackelford said. “And the fact that the ACLU is trying to use the power of government to tell people how to pray is just an incredible invasion of freedom, and (it) shows that they are not about freedom and liberty at all. They’re about oppression and trying to stamp out religious speech.”
The ACLU, together with Americans United for Separation of Church and State, are arguing on behalf of seven individuals who filed suit in 2005 challenging the “sectarian” nature of Cobb County’s invocations, claiming 70 percent of the prayers were Christian or mentioned Jesus Christ.
Last year, U.S. District Judge Richard Story ruled the prayers could continue and said that because the county invites clergy from all denominations, the practice doesn’t constitute endorsement of one religion over another.
Story did, however, criticize the county’s practice of selecting its invited clergy by merely thumbing through a phone book and awarded $1 to each of the seven plaintiffs.
The ACLU then appealed the case to the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
According to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, ALCU attorney Mach argued that federal appeals courts in Richmond, New Orleans, Chicago and San Francisco already have ruled sectarian invocations at government meetings violate the First Amendment.
Cobb County attorney Walbert, however, disagreed with the argument, saying that the U.S. Congress has opened its sessions with sectarian prayers since the appointment of the first Senate chaplain.
“Everything that is at issue here was clearly being done in 1789,” Walbert said.
The AP reported Judge Pryor also questioned the reasoning, pointing out that even the Supreme Court opens its session with a prayer that could be called sectarian: “God save the United States and this honorable court.”
With arguments concluding last week, the court is expected to rule on the case sometime in the coming months.