The elected members of the Rowan County, N.C., Board of Commissioners have been regularly praying in Jesus’ name at meetings since at least 2007. But some county residents aren’t happy about that.
On Jan. 27, the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals heard arguments in a case challenging the constitutionality of the Rowan County Commissioners’ Christian prayers. If the county loses, it could mean that commissioners will have to stop leading prayers during their meetings and instead invite community members to offer prayers.
Image captured from Rowan County archived video
Chaplain Michael Taylor prays before the Feb. 1 meeting of the Rowan County Board of Commissioners
The case arose after a few county residents complained about the Christian prayers they had heard while attending board meetings, which are open to the public. According to a legal complaint from three residents, all of the board members had offered at least one “sectarian” prayer in recent years, often invoking the name of Jesus. Prayers sometimes referred to “Jesus, the King of kings and Lord of lords” or “Jesus, the one and only way to salvation,” and were never offered to any non-Christian deity.
“We can’t be defeated, we can’t be destroyed, and we won’t be denied, because of our salvation through the Lord Jesus Christ,” prayed one board member in 2009, according to the complaint. “I ask you to be with us as we conduct the business of Rowan County this evening, and continue to bless everyone in this room, our families, our friends and our homes.”
These prayers made the plaintiffs, who say they are not Christians, feel “excluded” and “coerced,” according to the complaint. One plaintiff claimed he felt “pressured to stand and participate in the sectarian prayers.” The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and the ACLU of North Carolina Legal Foundation, which are representing the three plaintiffs, claim that 97 percent of the board’s meetings since November 2007 have opened with “sectarian prayer.”
The U.S. Supreme Court weighed in on the issue of prayer at town board meetings in the 2014 case of Town of Greece v. Galloway, where the justices ruled 5-4 that sectarian prayers at board meetings were constitutional as long as adherents of any faith were allowed to volunteer to pray. In that case, town officials had invited clergy members to offer prayers on their behalf.
The ACLU argues the Rowan County situation is different because elected officials, rather than volunteers, are offering the prayers.
But Brett Harvey, an attorney with Alliance Defending Freedom who is helping defend Rowan County, said the commissioners’ prayers are supported by widespread practice and by previous circuit court decisions that have implicitly acknowledged the right of elected officials to offer prayers.
“There are literally hundreds of communities that do it exactly the way Rowan County does,” Harvey said Jan. 27. “It would set a very dangerous precedent that somehow, simply because you run for public office, you give up rights that you would otherwise have as a citizen.”
The county already lost its case once, last May, when a federal judge ruled the commissioners’ prayers were “unconstitutionally coercive.” If the county loses before the circuit court, it will likely appeal the case, Lund v. Rowan County, to the U.S. Supreme Court.