RICHMOND, Virginia, May 20, 2011 (LifeSiteNews.com) - A federal appeals court last week heard the arguments of anti-prayer groups challenging a North Carolina county board for allowing non-officials to open meetings with Christian prayer.

The Forsyth County Commission was sued by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) in 2007 on behalf of three individuals because it “does not have a policy which discourages or prohibits those whom [the board] has invited to deliver prayers from including references to Jesus Christ, or any other sectarian deity, as part of their prayers.”

“All our clients want is to be able to go to meetings and not be subjected to sectarian prayers and not be made to feel like outsiders by their own government,” said Katy Parker, legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union of North Carolina. Parker represents two Forsyth residents.

Alliance Defense Fund (ADF) allied attorney Mike Johnson represented the county in a hearing May 12 before the appeals court, as the county appealed a district court ruling against the prayer podium. He said after last week’s hearing that he was optimistic, and that the judges’ questions indicated “the court has a firm grasp of the issues and an understanding of the importance of the issues.”

Johnson said the county opened the prayer podium on a “first come, fist served” basis, which contradicts plaintiffs’ claims that any religion was unfairly exalted.

“No one is excluded and the record shows that,” Johnson said, in an article on YesWeekly.com. “To the contrary, the commission wanted to do everything in its power and open it up to everyone and respect the religious diversity of the community it serves. The way they do that is to send identical invitation to every religious leader of every religion in the community.”

County residents, too, according to ADF, overwhelmingly support the board’s prayer policy; nearly 1,000 county residents turned out in support of fighting the initial ruling against the county in January 2010.

“In a country whose founders opened public meetings with prayer, its public officials should be able to do the same. Nor should they be forced to whitewash the prayers of those invited to offer them simply because secularist groups don’t like people praying according to their own conscience,” said Johnson in a press release prior to the hearing.