Appeals Court Reverses Ruling Banning NC County’s Prayers

A lower court ruled last year that Rowan County commissioners' prayers before meetings were unconstitutional. A recent ruling reversed that decision.

By Nancy Flory Published on September 21, 2016

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit yesterday reversed and remanded a lower court’s decision that Rowan County, North Carolina, commissioners’ prayers before public meetings violated the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.

In a 2-1 ruling written by Judge Steven Agee, with Judge Dennis Shedd concurring, the court determined that Rowan County’s practice of an invocation before meetings was not unconstitutional, as plaintiffs, who were represented by the ACLU, had charged. Judge Wilkinson dissented.

In February of 2012, the ACLU sent a letter to the Rowan County Board of Commissioners objecting to the pre-meeting prayers. Although the Board didn’t respond formally, several commissioners stated their intent to continue to express their Christian faith through prayers. According to the majority opinion, one then-commissioner stated, “I will continue to pray in Jesus’ name. I am not perfect so I need all the help I can get, and asking for guidance for my decisions from Jesus is the best I, and Rowan County, can ever hope for.”

Plaintiffs “alleged that the prayer practice unconstitutionally affiliated the Board with one particular faith and caused them to feel excluded as ‘outsiders.’” Plaintiffs sought an injunction preventing any future prayers, and moved for a preliminary injunction on the basis that “sectarian legislative prayer was a constitutional violation.”

Judge James A. Beaty, Jr., Senior District Judge of the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of North Carolina, ruled in May of 2015 that the Rowan County commissioners violated the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment since almost all of the prayers offered before public meetings invoked the Christian faith.

Yesterday’s majority opinion recalled, citing an earlier case as support, that the Founders appointed official chaplains to open sessions in prayer and it is a tradition continued today:

Observing that legislative invocations containing explicitly religious themes were accepted at the time of the first Congress and remain vibrant today, the Court concluded, “[a]n insistence on nonsectarian or ecumenical prayer as a single, fixed standard is not consistent with [our accepted] tradition of legislative prayer.”

The Court reversed and remanded the earlier ruling, stating that:

The Board’s legislative prayer practice falls within our recognized tradition and does not coerce participation by nonadherents. It is therefore constitutional. The district court erred in concluding to the contrary.

Chris Brook, Legal Director for the ACLU of North Carolina, was disappointed with the ruling and pledged to ask the Fourth Circuit to review the decision en banc, or by all 15 judges. “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,” he said, adding that, “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.”

Brett Harvey, Senior Counsel for Alliance Defending Freedom and co-counsel for Defendants, stated that “All Americans, including public servants, should have the freedom to pray without being censored … the First Amendment affirms the liberty of Americans to pray according to their consciences before public meetings. For that reason, the 4th Circuit rightly upheld Rowan County’s prayer policy, which is clearly constitutional.”

Rowan County Commission Chairman Greg Edds said the Board was very pleased with the court’s decision, adding that, “Our attorneys are currently working through the decision and we will know more about it in the coming days.”

Monday’s decision overrules the injunction on prayer imposed by Judge Beaty.

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