The Fourth Circuit of the US Court of Appeals has ruled against the longstanding tradition of having prayers before commission meetings in Rowan County, North Carolina.
The ACLU of North Carolina is praising the decision, per WBTV:
The Fourth Circuit of the US Court of Appeals has ruled that Rowan County’s practice of prayer before county commission meetings is unconstitutional.
A press release provided by the ACLU of North Carolina says that the court ruled 10-5 that the practice “violated the Constitution when they opened public meetings by coercing public participation in prayers that overwhelmingly advanced beliefs specific to one religion. The decision upheld a lower court ruling.”
“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 decision has been in courtrooms for several years, with mixed decisions:
In March, the case was argued before the full panel of fifteen judges in Richmond, VA., in March of this year.
In January of last year, the case was heard by a panel of three judges. In September, that panel reversed the ruling that Rowan County Commissioners violated the Constitution when they held prayers before public meetings that were specific to one religion.
In October, the appeals court agreed to vacate and reconsider a divided 2-1 decision in September that found the practice constitutional.
The final ruling has deemed the prayers unconstitutional, although one judge explains the content of the prayer should not be considered:
David Gibbs of the National Center for Life and Liberty heads the organization providing the legal team for Rowan County.
“I think there was a lot of room for agreement,” Gibbs said following the hearing. “That number one, legislative prayers are historic, they’re protected, they’ve gone on since the founding of our country. Both sides conceded that legislators can pray. The question really focused down on how do we determine where the line is, and I think everyone agrees that there is a line where something is constitutional or it’s unconstitutional.”
One judge pointed said that by addressing the content of the prayer, there was the danger of “being the police for the prayers that private persons give. We can’t get into content.”
The content of the prayers however, played a fundamental role in the decision:
One judge also pointed out specific examples of what she said were prayers that were proselytizing, or intended to convert someone to the Christian faith.
The judge cited a prayer by former commissioner Jon Barber in which he said the “one way to salvation is Jesus Christ.” A prayer by former commissioner Carl Ford was also mentioned, with the judge saying that Ford said that he would “pray that citizens of Rowan County put Jesus Christ first.”
Lawyers for the county replied that those prayers still neither “threaten damnation nor preach conversion,” and pointed to a tradition of legislative prayers gong back to a time prior to the founding of the republic.
The case very well may end up on the desks of the Supreme Court:
Both sides hesitated to give a definitive answer when asked if they thought this case could end up before the Supreme Court. At least one judge in the hearing pointed out that he believed that this case was without precedent in the United States.
Chris Scalia, who is an attorney with First Liberty which is the group that is serving as co-counsel for Rowan County in this case, released this statement Friday:
“While we are disappointed in the Fourth Circuit’s decision to ban invocations before legislative meetings contrary to Supreme Court precedent, we are encouraged that the split in the vote on the Fourth Circuit demonstrates the need for Supreme Court review on this issue.”
Note: The author of this article has included commentary that expresses an opinion and analysis of the facts.