By Pam Blume
Christian Action League
May 8, 2015
WINSTON-SALEM – U.S. District Judge James Beaty ruled Monday that the Rowan County Board of Commissioners’ manner of opening their meetings with prayer is unconstitutional. There is now a permanent injunction against their prior practice.
At issue was that the commissioners led in the prayers, referenced Christianity in them, and asked those in attendance to stand for the prayer.
The Salisbury Post reported that Commissioner Craig Pierce commented that it was never their intent to promote a specific religion. It just so happened that all the commissioners were Christians. He said, “Everybody that was on the board when the lawsuit was filed was a devout Christian. We just felt it was something that was the right thing to do.”
The ACLU had brought the lawsuit on behalf of plaintiffs Nan Lund, Liesa Montag-Siegel and Robert Voelker. Lund took issue with praying at a government meeting and asking everyone to participate by standing.
Judge Beaty ruled the practice of the elected officials praying sectarian prayers and asking those present to stand for the prayer without giving options to leave was discriminatory. His ruling states, “The board’s practice fails to be nondiscriminatory, entangles government with religion, and over time establishes a pattern of prayers that tends to advance the Christian faith of the elected commissioners at the expense of any religious affiliation unrepresented by the majority.”
The ACLU repeatedly used the word “coercive” to describe the commissioners’ practice and Judge Beaty also said the practice is unconstitutionally coercive by forcing those present to conform to the faith of the commissioners. He added, “When all faiths but those of the five elected Commissioners are excluded, the policy inherently discriminates and disfavors religious minorities.”
Beaty differentiated this case from the recent U.S. Supreme Court case Town of Greece vs. Galloway. That High Court ruled that the town could allow chaplains to pray at meetings since there was an open opportunity for all faiths to participate. (See: U.S. Supreme Court: Prayer at the Start of a Government Meeting Does Not Violate the Constitution)
Chris Brook, the legal director of the North Carolina ACLU, said “I think this sends a very strong signal which is that governmental actors cannot deliver prayers that are reflective of only one portion of the community over and over and over again, and direct those attending to participate in those prayers.”
One issue not specifically addressed was the religious liberty of the commissioners. The Gibbs Firm, representing the Rowan County Commission, said, “Of course, we do not agree with this decision nor do we agree that the citizens who sued Rowan County were ever coerced by the commissioners into praying.” The firm noted that the judge’s ruling did not say that sectarian prayers were unconstitutional and the U.S. Supreme Court has not ruled on the whether legislators themselves may open meetings with prayer.
Commissioner Mike Caskey said, “This is a First Amendment issue to us. We think anyone who gets elected should be able to pray however they like no matter what faith they are.”
Christian Action League Executive Director, Rev. Mark Creech, commented, “Commissioner Caskey is correct. This is a First Amendment issue. At a time when Christians are being ‘coerced’ by the government into violating their deeply held religious beliefs or being ordered to pay steep fines, it is galling that plaintiffs would attempt to ‘coerce’ the commissioners into not praying according to their personal faith.”
The plaintiffs are to be paid $1 in damages and they can also pursue attorney’s fees. The ALCU plans to pursue those fees.
Other commissioners have said they will not comment until they have reviewed the ruling and will decide how to proceed.