By Hunter Hines
Christian Action League
January 29, 2016
RICHMOND, VA. – Attorneys for the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and the Rowan County Commissioners faced off before the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond, Virginia, on Wednesday. The case was the appeal of U.S. District Judge James Beaty’s ruling in May of last year that the way the Commissioners opened their meetings with prayer was unconstitutional.
At issue in the case, Lund v. Rowan County has been that the commissioners prayers referenced Christianity, and asked those in attendance to stand.
Beaty contended that the practice of the elected officials praying sectarian prayers, asking the public to stand and not giving them an option to leave was discriminatory.
His ruling read, “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.”
Beaty’s ruling also differentiated the Rowan County Commissioners case from the recent U.S. Supreme Court Case, Town of Greece vs. Galloway. In that case, the High Court determined that sectarian prayers (such as prayers in Jesus’ name) at government meetings are permissible under the Constitution. Beaty’s ruling didn’t say whether sectarian prayers were unconstitutional. His concern, however, was that the methodology employed to carry out the prayer time only allowed the Commissioners to pray.
Plaintiffs Nan Lund, Robert Voelker and Lisa Montag-Siegel, filed the complaint against the Commissioners.
Represented by the North Carolina Chapter of the ACLU, their counsel argues that the prayer practice is “coercive” – forcing those present to conform to the faith of the commissioners.
Defendants, the commissioners, claim no one has ever been “coerced” into praying. It just happens that everyone who is on the Board of Commissioners is a Christian and has prayed prayers consistent with their faith. For the commissioners, this is a First Amendment question, whether or not as public officials they are free to pray according to the dictates of their consciences.
According to WBTV News, which covered the hearing on Wednesday, there was “an atmosphere of controlled contentiousness” in the courtroom as the three judges of the Fourth Circuit peppered attorneys on both sides with tough questions. Lawyers on both sides seemed satisfied that the judges had done their homework on the issue.
Rowan County, represented by lawyers from the Texas-based National Center for Life and Liberty (NCLL) were the first to make oral arguments before the court. Allyson Ho, who is one of the law firm’s attorneys, “focused part of her argument on whether the identity of a prayer giver – County Commissioners in this case – mattered. Ho said identity didn’t matter. Ho also emphasized the long-standing tradition of prayer before legislative meetings” reported the Salisbury Post.
ACLU North Carolina Legal Director Christopher Brook spoke next and argued before the court that the prayers made by Commissioners violated the U.S. Constitution because they attempted to proselytize and pressure members of the public into accepting one faith.
But David Gibbs III, who is also with the NCLL, insisted to WBTV News, “Rowan County is not attempting to coerce or proselytize anyone. And I think the records and the facts are fairly clear before the court.”
Rowan County Commissioners have received strong support from the county, as well various members of Congress to continue pursuing a just decision in the case.
In August of last year, N.C. Congressman Richard Hudson (NC-08) led seventeen bipartisan members of Congress to file an amicus brief before the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals.
“Prayer has long been an integral part of American government at all levels, uniting us all across diverse backgrounds, party lines, and seemingly impossible odds. As a defender of our constitutional rights, I will continue to do all that I can to protect religious liberty and stand up for our right to pray,” Hudson said in a statement on the matter at the time.
“Our country enjoys an extensive tradition of elected officials making public, religious statements that invite—but do not coerce—private citizens to participate. As the amicus brief shows, the district court’s decision is unmoored from that historical tradition, and should be reversed,” he added.
Hudson was joined on the brief by: Sen. Thom Tillis (R-NC), Rep. Alma Adams (NC-12), Rep. Virginia Foxx (NC-05), Rep. George Holding (NC-13), Rep. Walter Jones (NC-03), Rep. Patrick McHenry (NC-10), Former Rep. Mike McIntyre (NC-07), Rep. Mark Meadows (NC-11), Rep. Robert Pittenger (NC-09), Rep. David Rouzer (NC-07), Rep. Mark Walker (NC-06), Rep. Andy Harris (MD-01), Sen. James Lankford (R-OK), Rep. Jeff Duncan (SC-03), Rep. Trey Gowdy (SC-04), Rep. J. Randy Forbes (VA-04), and Rep. Bob Goodlatte (VA-06).
Dr. Mark Creech, executive director of the Christian Action League, said the case could have huge ramifications for religious liberty.
“I think the issue here is whether or not government officials may pray according to their personal faith. It is not coercive or proselytizing if all of the members of a state delegation, elected to represent their community, also happen to be of the same faith and pray accordingly,” said Dr. Creech. “If this is wrong, then we need to remove the phrase, ‘the year of our Lord,’ from the U.S. Constitution. What possible Lord do you think our founders were talking about, Muhammad, Buddha, the various gods of Hinduism? There are other examples of Jesus’ name in official documents and government proceedings. There are certain days ordered by Congress for fasting, humiliation and prayer, along with days of Thanksgiving declared, which have contained phrases like, ‘through the merits and mediation of Jesus Christ,’ ‘the Gospel of Jesus Christ,’ and ‘the scepter of our Lord Jesus Christ.’ If what the Rowan County Commissioners have been doing is unconstitutional, then so were our founders in what they said and wrote in their official capacities.”
The justices did not make a decision on Wednesday. How long it will take is not known. Some have said it could take anywhere from a day to a year.