A federal appeals court on Friday ruled that a government prayer practice in North Carolina was unconstitutional because a local board of commissioners only allowed its elected representatives, all of whom are Christian, to deliver religious invocations.
For years, the Rowan County Board of Commissioners has opened its twice-monthly meetings with a prayer delivered by one of its five members. The prayers are “invariably and unmistakably Christian in content,” according to the ruling, and a review of recorded meetings showed that 97 percent of the invocations mentioned “Jesus,” “Christ” or the “Savior.” Prayers also occasionally implied Christianity was superior to other faiths, or proselytized by asking attendees to accept the Christian faith.
In a 10-5 ruling, the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that Rowan County’s practice violated the establishment clause of the First Amendment and exceeded the limits of Supreme Court-approved legislative prayer.
Prayers occasionally implied Christianity was superior to other faiths, or proselytized by asking attendees to accept the Christian faith.
The court ruled in favor of the American Civil Liberties Union of North Carolina, which had filed suit on behalf of non-Christian Rowan County residents who had called the prayers into question.
“This ruling is a great victory for the rights of all residents to participate in their local government without fearing discrimination or being forced to join in prayers that go against their beliefs,” said ACLU of North Carolina legal director Chris Brook, who argued the case. “We are very pleased that the full Fourth Circuit has upheld a bedrock principle of the First Amendment: that government should not be in the business of promoting one set of religious beliefs over others.”
The court’s decision was an important step against discrimination and signaled that Rowan County should “be a welcoming place for everyone, no matter their religious beliefs,” added Nan Lund, a volunteer tutor and the lead plaintiff in the case.
The federal court’s ruling in Lund v. Rowan County is the latest development in a contentious battle over the role of religion in government meetings. Some observers expect the case to end up before the Supreme Court.
The Supreme Court most recently upheld the constitutionality of legislative prayer in a 2014 ruling, declaring that institutions must have policies of nondiscrimination and that invocations must not coerce people of other faiths or nonbelievers. A 1983 Supreme Court ruling also upheld prayer in government, clarifying that it may not be “exploited to proselytize or advance [a particular faith] or to disparage any other.”
But Rowan County Board’s prayer practice differed substantially from the legislative bodies named in previous suits because its invocations were exclusively reserved for board members themselves, all Christians. In other government bodies, including the U.S. Congress, religious officials or other guests often deliver invocations.
Writing for the majority, Judge J. Harvie Wilkinson explained that Rowan’s prayer practice “both identifies the government with religion more strongly than ordinary invocations and heightens the constitutional risks posed by requests to participate and by sectarian prayers.”
The commissioners’ prayers, Wilkinson noted, were markedly noninclusive.
“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 solely on election outcomes,” wrote Wilkinson.
This had the effect of creating a hostile environment for some non-Christian residents of Rowan County. At one meeting, an individual who “expressed opposition to the Board’s prayer practice” was booed and jeered by the audience, the plaintiffs said.
In a dissent, Judge Paul Niemeyer claimed the majority ruling seeks “to outlaw most prayer given in government assemblies, even though such prayer has been an important part of the fabric of our democracy and civic life.”
The ACLU sees it differently.
“This decision serves as an important reminder that there are significant constitutional limits on government-sponsored prayer,” said Daniel Mach, director of the ACLU Program on Freedom of Religion and Belief, in a statement.
Rowan County should 'be a welcoming place for everyone, no matter their religious beliefs' Nan Lund, a volunteer tutor and the lead plaintiff in the case.
A district court’s 2015 decision previously ruled Rowan County’s prayer practice unconstitutional, but the following year a three-judge panel on the 4th Circuit approved the prayers, as long as commissioners didn’t force attendees to participate. Attorneys for Rowan County had argued that because people were allowed to leave the room or remain seated during the prayer, they had the option not to join in. A full panel of the 4th Circuit heard the case in March, leading to Friday’s decision.
The board of commissioners can now appeal to the Supreme Court. 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.”
In the meantime, other legislative bodies may want to look at their own prayer practices to make sure they can pass constitutional muster, said Andrew Seidel, a constitutional consultant at the Freedom From Religion Foundation, a nonprofit that fights for the separation of church and state.
Government prayer has emerged as a thorny issue in a number of state legislatures around the country, where Christian lawmakers tend to dominate the practice. In the Arizona House of Representatives, for example, state representatives often deliver invocations that are largely Christian in nature. 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.
“We’re going to be citing Lund v. Rowan quite a bit explaining why you can’t be doing, for instance, legislator-led prayer,” Seidel told HuffPost. “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.”
Read the full ruling below: