‘Unconstitutionally coercive’: Judges rule against prayer at North Carolina county board meetings

‘Unconstitutionally coercive’: Judges rule against prayer at North Carolina county board meetings
Beginning their meetings with almost exclusively Christian prayers, members of the Rowan County Board of Commissioners violated the US Constitution’s Establishment Clause, the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals has ruled.

Ten judges sided with plaintiff Nan Lund and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), who argued that the county commissioners’ practice of opening their meetings with Christian prayers effectively established official religion and discriminated against those in attendance who did not share the same beliefs.

"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 government is not free to “link itself persistently and relentlessly to a single faith,” the majority said.

At one meeting, an individual who expressed opposition to the board’s prayer practice was booed and jeered by others in the audience, the majority wrote. The practice became a campaign issue in the 2016 board election, with the two candidates who sought to end it losing their bid for office.

“All we’ve ever wanted is for Rowan County to be a welcoming place for everyone, no matter their religious beliefs, and I am so glad that the court agrees that the Constitution is on our side,” said Nan Lund, the lead plaintiff in the case. “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.”

“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 Chris Brook, legal director of the ACLU of North Carolina, who argued the case.

The ACLU filed the lawsuit in 2013, on behalf of Lund and two other residents of Rowan County, located between Charlotte and Winston-Salem with a population of about 140,000.

The five judges who dissented, however, said the majority was overstepping its powers and seeking to police the content of prayers at public meetings.

Judge G. Steven Agee called the ruling “judicial review run amok,” while Judge Paul Niemeyer said it “actively undermines the appropriate role of prayer in American civil life.”

The majority’s decision directly contravened the 2014 US Supreme Court ruling upholding the right to sectarian prayer in Town of Greece v. Galloway, Niemeyer wrote in his dissent, adding that the 4th Circuit’s decision seemed more in line with Justice Elena Kagan’s dissent than the Supreme Court’s majority opinion.

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.

“I will continue to stand with them to protect religious liberty and defend our right to pray,” Representative Richard Hudson (R-North Carolina) said in a statement Friday.