A Winston-Salem pastor who was asked to offer the North Carolina legislature prayer each day for a week says he was barred after the first day when he refused to change his prayers to exclude the name “Jesus.”Dr. Ron Baity, pastor at Berean Baptist Church, said he was asked to open the May 31 through June 3 sessions.”I was made to feel like a second-class North Carolinian when I was told that my services would no longer be needed if I could not offer the opening prayer in the manner prescribed by the House of Representatives, rather that in the manner my biblical faith requires,” Baity said.
The Christian Law Association, an organization that offers free legal defense and counsel to churches, helped Baity draft a nine-page letter to House Speaker Joe Hackney asking for an apology and the ability to return to offer another prayer.Hackney released a statement late Thursday afternoon.”It has been our practice in the North Carolina House of Representatives for many years to request, but not require, that our guest chaplains deliver a nonsectarian prayer. This is intended as a show of respect for all the religions practiced by the members of the House and the people we represent,” the statement read.”In this instance, we allowed Pastor Baity to deliver his prayer, without interference, even though it was sectarian in nature. Nonetheless, we will review our procedures and guidelines concerning guest chaplains, and we will make sure we abide by applicable constitutional procedures.
The House will adjourn within the next few days, but the results of this review will be publicly available whenever it is complete.”CLA attorney David Gibbs said the legislature doesn’t have the right to keep Baity from praying in any way he wishes.”The First Amendment promises all Americans the free exercise of their religion, which includes the right to pray as their faith requires, even when they are invited to open state legislative sessions with prayer,” Gibbs said. “We trust that the North Carolina House of Representatives will realize its mistake and will offer Pastor Baity another opportunity to pray without requiring him to use a prayer that is mandated by government.”Gibbs said there is no Supreme Court precedent that allows a legislature to censor a private citizen’s prayers. However, a federal magistrate earlier this year ruled that the use of prayer at public meetings violates the First Amendment.
That lawsuit was filed several years ago on behalf of two Forsyth County residents, Janet Joyner and Constance Blackmon, who objected to the use of prayer before county commissioner meetings.Forsyth County commissioners voted in February to appeal the judge’s decision.American Civil Liberties Union of North Carolina legal director Katy Parker said the Forsyth County case, as well as others, make it clear that prayers offered before public meetings must be sectarian.”When you are doing an opening legislature prayer, you are acting as the government mouthpiece, not as a private citizen,” Parker said. “The government has an obligation to stay neutral on matters of religion so that all citizens in North Carolina are included by their government.””If Pastor Baity were speaking as a private citizen on the street and he were told he couldn’t pray in Jesus’ name, the ACLU would be the first to defend him,” she said.Parker said oral arguments in the Forsyth County appeal are expected to be heard in October in Richmond, Va.Baity said he’s given Hackney 10 days to respond to his letter.”If the speaker were to say, ‘I will not allow people of a certain race to pray,’ everyone would say that’s discrimination,” Gibbs said. “Or if he said, ‘I’m going to evaluate people’s sexual orientation,’ people would scream discrimination. Well, what’s the difference?”