Rowan County commissioners violated the United States Constitution by opening meetings with commissioner-led Christian prayers and inviting the audience to join, the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled 10-5 on July 14.
Screenshot from video
Rowan County commissioners stand to pray before their July 5 meeting in Salisbury.
The commissioners could decide to appeal the case to the U.S. Supreme Court. The Charlotte Observer reported July 15 that at least two of the five commissioners were ready to appeal.
In 2014, the Supreme Court decided in Town of Greece v. Galloway that clergy can offer prayers to open town board meetings. However, the 4th Circuit emphasized that because commissioners exclusively gave the prayers, and 97 percent of prayers in recent years were Christian in context, Rowan County’s practice “falls well outside the more inclusive, minister-oriented practice of legislative prayer described in Town of Greece.”
Judge J. Harvie Wilkinson III wrote in the majority opinion, “The great promise of the Establishment Clause is that religion will not operate as an instrument of division in our nation. Consistent with this principle, there is a time-honored tradition of legislative prayer that reflects the respect of each faith for other faiths and the aspiration, common to so many creeds, of finding higher meaning and deeper purpose in these fleeting moments each of us spends upon this earth.
“Instead of drawing on this tradition, Rowan County elevated one religion above all others and aligned itself with that faith. It need not be so.”
The prayer debate started in 2012 when the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) requested commissioners stop praying at meetings. In 2013, the ACLU filed a lawsuit on behalf of three non-Christian residents who said the prayers made them feel excluded.
According to WRAL, Rowan County attorneys argued that commissioners did not coerce audience members to participate and allowed them to leave the room or stay seated during prayers.
A district court ruled the county’s practice unconstitutional in 2015. In 2016, a three-judge panel of the 4th Circuit overturned that decision and upheld the commissioners’ right to pray. All 15 judges of the full 4th Circuit agreed to hear the case again in March, leading to the July 14 decision.