Political News

Court: Rowan commissioners' prayer practice violates Constitution

Posted July 14

— The Rowan County Board of Commissioners violated the Constitution by opening meetings with Christian prayers and inviting audience members to join, a federal appeals court ruled Friday in a closely watched case that could end up in the Supreme Court.

The 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a lower court ruling that found the board's prayer practice to be "unconstitutionally coercive."

The Supreme Court already has ruled that it's appropriate for local clergy to deliver predominantly Christian prayers and town meetings in New York. The question in the Rowan County case was whether it makes a difference that the prayers were given by the commissioners themselves and whether their invitation for the audience to join them in prayer was coercive.

The 4th Circuit, located in Richmond, Va., stressed that it's not inherently unconstitutional for lawmakers to lead prayers. But the fact that the Rowan County commissioners were the exclusive prayer givers combined with them consistently invoking one faith and inviting the audience members to participate sent the message that they preferred Christianity above other religions, the court said.

"The principle at stake here may be a profound one, but it is also simple. The Establishment Clause does not permit a seat of government to wrap itself in a single faith," Judge J. Harvie Wilkinson III wrote in the majority opinion that was joined by nine other judges.

Five dissenting judges said the majority opinion can't be reconciled with Supreme Court rulings upholding government prayer. Judge Paul Niemeyer said the majority's decision "actively undermines the appropriate role of prayer in American civil life."

"In finding Rowan County's prayer practice unconstitutional, essentially because the prayers were sectarian, the majority's opinion strikes at the very trunk of religion, seeking to outlaw most prayer given in government assemblies, even though such prayer has been an important part of the fabric of our democracy and civic life," he wrote.

The full 4th Circuit heard the case in March after a divided three-judge panel said Rowan County commissioners had a constitutional right to open meetings with prayers as long as they don't pressure observers to participate.

The American Civil Liberties Union filed the lawsuit on behalf of non-Christians who say the prayers made them feel excluded and sent the message that the board favored a particular religion.

Chris Brook, legal director for the North Carolina ACLU, said the fact that the audience was instructed to pray with the commissioners was key to the argument. People who had business matters before the board felt they had no choice but to obey, he said.

"That is a heck of a lot of pressure to place on citizens who simply want a zoning variance, to sort of choose between their religious beliefs and whether they're going to get the favorable treatment they want from their elected representatives," Brook said. "(This is) the government telling you stand up and pray with me in a prayer that I have written that reflects only one set of beliefs. If that doesn't violate the First Amendment, then I'm not sure what does."

Attorneys for Rowan County argued that the prayers fell within the bounds of the practice endorsed by the Supreme Court. The commissioners don't force anyone to participate, their attorneys said, noting that people can leave the room or stay seated during the prayer. Since the lower court's decision deemed the prayers unconstitutional, the commission has invited a volunteer chaplain to lead prayer.

Board of Commissioners Chairman Greg Edds said in an email that the board will be meeting with its legal team in the coming weeks to decide the next steps. Mike Berry, deputy general counsel for the First Liberty Institute, one of the firms representing the county, said it will be up to the county whether to appeal, but he believes the case is ripe for Supreme Court review because it conflicts with the justices' prior rulings.

The First Liberty Institute is also involved in a similar case in Michigan. In that case, a divided three-judge panel of the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said the Jackson County Board of Commissioners' tradition of Christian-only prayers was unconstitutional. The full 6th Circuit heard arguments in the case last month.

If the two circuits split, the Supreme Court may feel more compelled to take up the issue.

The 4th Circuit said the intimate local board meeting setting, as opposed to a gathering of Congress or state lawmakers, increases the risk that residents would feel coerced to participate in the prayers. The judges also found it troubling that the commissioners' prayers sometimes implied that other faiths were "in some way condemned," with messages suggesting that Christianity was "the one and only way to salvation."

Brook called the ruling a "great victory for the rights of all residents to participate in their local government without fearing discrimination."

"No one in this community should fear being forced by government officials to participate in a prayer, or fear being discriminated against because they didn't participate in a prayer before a meeting for all the public," Nan Lund, one of the residents who brought the case, said in a statement.


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  • Linda Tally Jul 15, 7:57 p.m.
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    Been reading all these comments, and it suddenly struck me that if Rowan County has many of the Christian Evangelicals as residents, the prayers they've raised in the past are probably for protection.

  • George Orwell Jul 15, 7:08 a.m.
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    Easy there, Quid. Truthing out the vipers will only get you nailed to a cross, although lynched is the better term considering who/what you're dealing with. Never underestimate the hatred and violence that Evangelicals are capable of- the evidence is right there in those old photographs.

  • George Orwell Jul 15, 7:03 a.m.
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    Back there in seminary school. There was a person there who put forth the proposition that you can petition the Lord with prayer...


  • Quid Malmborg Jul 15, 6:51 a.m.
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    The reality is that Trump's behavior and actions (compulsive lying, defrauding of others, sexual predation, mocking of the disabled, etc.) are the complete antithesis of Christian behavior as taught by Jesus in the four Gospels, yet he has been accepted by many Christians (typically Evangelicals) as their false savior. Also consider what he has for a wife (Revelations 17:5).

    Trumpeters: O generation of vipers, how can ye, being evil, speak good things? For out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaketh...

  • William Sherman Jul 15, 2:20 a.m.
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    Oh come on now--thats the 2nd most asinine statement I've heard of late. The first is that OBAMA was the Anti-Christ. Lets play in the realm of reality here kids....

  • Quid Malmborg Jul 14, 7:38 p.m.
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    "I do not permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over a man; she must be quiet." ~~~Timothy 2:12

  • Robin Cubbon Jul 14, 4:55 p.m.
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    this just makes me not want to have any christians in my life. they are so insistent that they practice their religion in any place they want, not just their church. they have no respect for other religions being represented equally. they do not deem nonchristains as equal. they will not elect any one that does not profess a religion. i left the church decades ago and i still can't get away from it. why does any one want to pray at a government meeting or a sports event? they may be able to do what they do legally but their lack of respect for others and constant arguing about how right they are sure isn't winning any friends..and seems unjesuslike.

  • Adam Hatch Jul 14, 4:46 p.m.
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    You know, being raised a Christian, I don't really have a problem with meetings opening with prayer. However, the business of the board is public business. This includes all the public. People must go there and attend if they want to transact business with the board. That's what makes it different. Besides, if you are praying out loud and you can clearly see that someone doesn't care for what you're doing, why not do it silently? That would be the neighborly thing to do. Didn't Jesus say something about going and praying alone so that no one would see you? That's true faith.

  • Clif Bardwell Jul 14, 4:20 p.m.
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    The fact the the Supreme Court got it wrong is irrelevant. They have been known to make mistakes before. Don't believe me? Google "Dred Scott".

    Opinions can change, facts cannot.

    The fact remains the First Amendment forbids the government from stopping anyone from the free exercise of their religion.
    "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof"

  • Scott Patterson Jul 14, 4:17 p.m.
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    Just in case you didnt believe me... younger generations reject religion 3 times more than people 65 and older. Times are changing and changing for the better, at least in terms of religion. This isnt the white Christian nation you want it to be anymore...