Should Forsyth County’s Board of Commissioners Appeal?

I've long been on record that I don't like the position of the Forsyth County Board of Commissioners on the prayer case they've been fighting.  For those of you not from the Winston-Salem area let me nutshell it for you: 

  • For years the Forsyth County Board of Commissioners opened its meetings with an invocation delivered by a pastor or priest invited by the Board to give it.
  • The vast majority of those invited to deliver the invocation were Baptist, Methodist or otherwise Protestant.  Many of them invoked Jesus, which made the prayers sectarian.
  • A few years ago a couple of citizens took exception to having to hear prayers at a public meeting and, working with the ACLU, sued the Board over the practice.
  • The county commissioners, defying the advice of their own lawyer, continued their practice and ended up losing in court.  They decided to appeal, once again against the advice of their own counsel, and ended up being represented in court by a conservative group called the Alliance Defense Fund (ADF).
  • The vote to appeal was a close one and what ended up tipping the scales towards appeal is that a local group of church leaders agreed to pay any legal fees not covered by the ADF.  Those fees could be significant if the commissioners lose because they could be on the hook for the plaintiff's legal fees and any damages awarded by the court.

Last week the commissioners learned that they'd lost their appeal at the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.  If they decide to appeal that decision it will go to the Supreme Court and that's a big, and potentially expensive, deal. Here's my question:  has anyone checked to see if those local religious leaders will still cover the commissioners' legal expenses if they lose the Supreme Court appeal?  As you probably know a lot has changed in the last couple of years and many institutions' and peoples' finances aren't in the same condition they were then.  I'm not sure the group ever raised the money they pledged in the first place, but even if they did I'd lay better than even odds that some of the pledges are backed more by passion than cash.

Another change since the commissioners voted to appeal is the makeup of the Board itself and I have no doubt that the current commissioners will vote to appeal. You'll notice that I've referred to this as the commissioners' appeal, not the county's.  That's because they alone voted to appeal this case and since they defied the advice of Forsyth County's own legal counsel and got into bed with a conservative advocacy group they alone are responsible for the outcome. 

As I said I don't agree with the commissioners' stance on this, but I'm 99% sure that at least 60-70% of the residents of Forsyth County disagree with me and think that the commissioners should appeal.  That means that in addition to whatever convictions the commissioners have about the case they also have the political cover to appeal because none of them have to worry about losing the next election over it.  If they lose the case they can claim they stood for the traditional values of Forsyth County and if they win the case they become national heroes of the conservative movement and at least one or two can start turning their dreams of higher office into reality. 

By the way, I highly recommend you read the comments on the story at the Winston-Salem Journal.  I think you'll find a version of every argument I've heard against or in favor of the commissioners' position.

2 thoughts on “Should Forsyth County’s Board of Commissioners Appeal?

  1. Pete

    As a Forsyth County taxpayer I am appalled the Board ignored the advice of counsel and chose to fight over the prayer. It is clearly another example of politicians acting on their own behalf and ignoring the good of the people they represent. Also this seems to be a violation of church and state as set forth in the US Constitution. I will be following this battle closely.
    Pete Komas

  2. Jon Lowder

    Thanks for the comment Pete. It will be interesting to see how this works out. I know some people I highly respect who agree with the commissioners and think the rulings against them have been wrong from the legal standpoint, and as I wrote I disagree with them, but its a complex issue when you start digging into it so Im not surprised at the disagreement between folks.
    One point I thought about last night is that if this case does go to the Supreme Court I think there will be plenty of financial support from  conservative Christian groups around the country, so the issue of the county being on the hook if the commissioners lose might not be much of an issue after all.  Of course that makes it even easier for the commissioners to appeal and all indications are that theyre going to do so.
    BTW, if the commissioners win their appeal Im looking forward to the day when someone from a fringe religion with exotic prayer practices gets his ticket selected to provide the invocation. Even better, Id like to see what happens if a Satanist is selected.  That would be some great political theater.


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