North Carolina’s governor, Pat McCrory, signed a law in 2014 that sought to “clarify student rights to engage in prayer and religious activity in school” as reported by U.S. News
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In doing so, he alienated advocacy groups by upsetting some precedential court rulings that arose from lawsuits over school prayer.
For decades, the right for public schools to allow prayer either during or after school hours has received severe blows from organizations such as the Americans United for Separation of Church and State, the Freedom From Religion Foundation, and the American Civil Liberties Union, amongst others.
These organizations largely argue that allowing students and teachers to participate in school prayer violates the Constitution’s Establishment of Religion Clause and the separation of church and state.
One notable North Carolina lawsuit pertaining to school prayer conflicts is the 2012 case Forsyth County, N.C. v. Joyner.
In this case, the issue concerned “(1) Whether the Establishment Clause compels the government to parse the content of legislative prayers to eliminate ‘sectarian’ references; and (2) whether the ‘frequent’ presentation of legislative prayers that include a ‘sectarian’ reference violates the Establishment Clause,” according to the SCOTUS blog.
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The United States 4th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the Forsyth County violated the constitution by opening school meetings with Christian invocations.
The court did allow that
that invocations in legislative sessions “can solemnize those occasions; encourage participants to act on their noblest instincts; and foster the humility that recognition of a higher hand in human affairs can bring.” It also noted that legislative invocations followed years of precedents.
However, the court noted that it must be cautious in placing clear boundaries upon what types of prayer are acceptable in which situations and settings.
It ruled, “But in their public pursuits, Americans respect the manifold beliefs of fellow citizens by abjuring sectarianism and embracing more inclusive themes . . . But where prayer in public fora is concerned, the deep beliefs of the speaker afford only more reason to respect the profound convictions of the listener. Free religious exercise posits broad religious tolerance. The policy here, as implemented, upsets the careful balance the First Amendment seeks to bring about.”
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