NC county can open meetings with Christian prayers, appeals court rules

Rowan County Commission in a file photo from WBTV.
Rowan County Commission in a file photo from WBTV.

SALISBURY, NC (WBTV) — A federal court of appeals has reversed a ruling that Rowan County Commissioners violated the Constitution when they held prayers before public meetings that were specific to one religion.

The United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit released a 73-page opinion which showed the three-judge panel ruled two to one in favor the Rowan County Commission.

A lawsuit was filed in 2013 by the American Civil Liberties Union and ACLU of North Carolina Legal Foundation (ACLU-NCLF) on behalf of residents Nancy Lund, Liesa Montag-Siegel and Robert Voelker.

The trio said the prayers were a violation of their first amendment liberties.

The complaint detailed how more than 97 percent of board meetings between 2007 and 2013 were opened with prayers specific to one religion, Christianity.

In June 2013, the court asked the commissioners to stop opening their meetings with sectarian prayer. A federal judge’s ruling in May 2015 made that injunction permanent, prohibiting commissioners from returning to their former practice of opening their meetings with prayer “in the name of Jesus.”

The commissioners, who at the time delivered the prayers themselves, routinely called on Jesus Christ and refer to other sectarian beliefs during invocations. Opening invocations have declared that “there is only one way to salvation, and that is Jesus Christ,” as well as given thanks for the “virgin birth,” the “cross at Calvary,” and “the resurrection.”

The ACLU argued in the lawsuit that the practice of Christian prayer violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, as well as the Fourteenth Amendment.

The Establishment Clause says that Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof. The Fourteenth Amendment applies the Bill of Rights to state and local governments and includes the equal protection under the law clause.

Monday’s opinion by the 4th Circuit overrules the injunction on the commission over prayer.

“We are very pleased with the decision and think the court properly decided the matter,” Rowan County Commission Chairman Greg Edds said. “Our attorneys are currently working through the decision and we will know more about it in the coming days.”

The ACLU says it will ask the court to review the ruling en banc, in which the case would be heard by all 15 judges on the Fourth Circuit.

“Today’s ruling is out of step with the First Amendment’s protection of religious liberty for all, and we will ask the full appellate court to review this decision,” said Chris Brook, Legal Director for the ACLU of North Carolina. “Rowan County residents should be able to attend local government meetings without being coerced to participate in a sectarian prayer or worry that the commissioners may discriminate against them if they do not.”

Judge J. Harvie Wilkinson was the lone judge against the decision and wrote the dissenting opinion.
“As Judge Wilkinson wrote in his dissent today, the facts in this case are a ‘conceptual world apart’ from those the U.S. Supreme Court upheld in Greece, New York, and that is why we will seek en banc review,” Brooks continued.

Copyright 2016 WBTV. All rights reserved.

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