Published January 17, 2012
WASHINGTON – The US Supreme Court on Tuesday declined to take on two cases in which lower courts ruled public prayers at government-sponsored events were unconstitutional.
The court rejected an appeal of a US Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals decision that said the predominantly Christian prayers that began meetings of the Forsyth County Board of Commissioners in North Carolina were unconstitutional for violating the First Amendment's prohibition on government endorsement of a single religion.
The justices also refused to weigh the merits of a US Third Circuit Court of Appeals decision that ruled the recitation of a religious invocation at a monthly school board meeting in the Indian River School District in Delaware was unconstitutional.
The decision to reject the appeals means both lower court rulings will stand.
The Supreme Court previously held in 1983 that legislative bodies, such as Congress and state legislatures, may open their sessions with prayers. But the court has not explicitly ruled on whether other government bodies may do so at public events.
The court rejected the appeals without comment Tuesday.
"I'm surprised and disappointed," Mike Johnson, who argued Forsyth County's case at the Supreme Court, told the Winston-Salem Journal. "We really were expecting that the court would want to take a look at the case. I think that this leaves a very important constitutional law issue essentially unresolved. We believe that sometime soon, the Supreme Court will have to hear one of these cases to resolve the issue."
Daniel Mach, director of the ACLU's Program on Freedom of Religion and Belief, said he agreed with Tuesday's decisions.
"One of the most basic rights guaranteed to all Americans is a government that does not pick sides on matters of religion," Mach said in a statement. "Government-sponsored sectarian prayer is needlessly divisive, and with the end of this case, religious liberty has prevailed."