Appeals court upholds prayers before public meetings

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RICHMOND, Va. – The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit ruled Monday, Sept. 19 to uphold a North Carolina county’s prayer policy, reversing a lower court’s decision.

“All Americans, including public servants, should have the freedom to pray without being censored, just as the Supreme Court found less than two years ago,” said ADF Senior Counsel Brett Harvey. “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.”

The Rowan County’s policy permitted each county commissioner, on a rotating basis, to offer a prayer or have a moment of silence as part of an opening ceremony that included a call to order and the Pledge of Allegiance. The individual commissioner could decide the content of his or her prayer as well as the decision whether to pray or have a moment of silence. No one was required to participate.
Attorneys with the American Civil Liberties Union had filed suit against the county policy on behalf of three people who said that the prayers were mainly Christian and were discriminatory and coercive.

“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,” Chris Brook, ACLU’s legal director for North Carolina, told The Charlotte Observer.

In its 2-1 decision, the 4th Circuit reversed the district court’s ruling, saying, “Under the Supreme Court’s most recent decision explaining legislative prayer, Town of Greece v. Galloway…, we find the Board’s legislative prayer practice constitutional and reverse the judgment of the district court…. There is a clear line of precedent not only upholding the practice of legislative prayer, but acknowledging the ways in which it can bring together citizens of all backgrounds and encourage them to participate in the workings of their government.”

Additionally, the 4th Circuit wrote, “On a broader level, and more importantly, the very ‘history and tradition’ anchoring the Supreme Court’s holding in Town of Greece underscores a long-standing practice not only of legislative prayer generally but of lawmaker-led prayer specifically. Opening invocations offered by elected legislators have long been accepted as a permissible form of religious observance…. [W]e decline to accept the district court’s view that legislative prayer forfeits its constitutionally protected status because a legislator delivers the invocation. A legal framework that would result in striking down legislative prayer practices that have long been accepted as ‘part of the fabric of our society’ cannot be correct….”

Rowan County has made clear that it is committed to respecting the rights of all citizens and elected officials. The county says it will continue to welcome the entire community while solemnizing meetings in a manner consistent with historical tradition and the Constitution.

— CNJ staff

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