Appeals court: Board's prayer practice is unconstitutional

Henrietta Strickland
July 15, 2017

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 is coercive.

In a 10-5 decision, the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled Friday that Rowan County's practice of opening board of commissioners' meetings with Christian prayers led by commissioners themselves violates the First Amendment's establishment clause and is "unconstitutionally coercive".

It was unclear whether Rowan County would appeal Friday's ruling to the Supreme Court.

"By proclaiming the spiritual and moral supremacy of Christianity, characterizing the political community as a Christian one, and urging adherents of other religions to embrace Christianity as the sole path to salvation, the Board in its prayer practice stepped over the line", Judge J. Harvie Wilkinson wrote in the majority opinion.

The Supreme Court has already ruled that it's appropriate in limited circumstance for local clergy to deliver predominantly Christian prayers and town meetings. "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".

While the Rowan County officials are weighing their options, their member of Congress said he was "disappointed" by the verdict and urged the country to take the case to the Supreme Court.

Judge Paul Niemeyer wrote in a dissent that the majority opinion "actively undermines the appropriate role of prayer in American civil life". The ACLU noted that Rowan County commissioners directed the public to participate, with phrases such as "please pray with me", and used language that could be seen as proselytizing, like "I pray that the citizens of Rowan County will love you, Lord". It's not as simple as whether prayer at government meetings is OK. Since the lower court's decision deemed the prayers unconstitutional, the commission has invited a volunteer chaplain to lead prayer.

"Instead of embracing religious pluralism and the possibility of a correspondingly diverse invocation practice, Rowan County's commissioners created a "closed-universe" of prayer-givers dependent exclusively on election outcomes", wrote Wilkinson. Elected officials and members of the public could all lead their own silent prayers, with no one setting the parameters for anyone else. Greg Edds, the board's chairman, told Reuters on Friday that they would be "reviewing it over the next several weeks with our legal team to decide where we go from here". The invocations, according to the plaintiffs, have been overwhelmingly Christian in nature over the years. In recent years, atheist lawmakers there have claimed they've been excluded from the tradition, drawing complaints from secular organizations like the Freedom From Religion Foundation. "The ruling speaks to a basic tenet of our American republic, that government should not be dictating to citizens what is right or wrong or orthodox or unorthodox in terms of religion".

Other reports by Click Lancashire

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