By CAL Staff
Christian Action League
September 22, 2016
RICHMOND, VA. – In a case where attorneys for the ACLU and Rowan County Commissioners had faced off in January, the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals said on Monday that the way Commissioners opened their meetings with prayer was constitutional.
The 2-1 decision in Lund v. Rowan County overturned a previous ruling by U.S. District Judge James Beaty that concluded the practice of elected officials praying sectarian prayers (prayers that reference Christianity or made in ‘Jesus’ name) failed to be nondiscriminatory. Beaty said it entangled government with religion, and “overtime establishes a pattern of prayers that tends to advance the Christian faith at the expense of any religious affiliation unrepresented by the majority.”
Beaty differentiated his ruling from the landmark prayer case decided by the U.S. Supreme Court, Town of Greece v. Galloway, which determined sectarian prayers are not unconstitutional. Beaty said what made the Rowan County case separate was the methodology employed for the prayer time only provided for the commissioners to pray.
The Plaintiffs Nan Lund, Robert Voelker and Lisa Montag–Siegel, filed the complaint against the commissioners, arguing the prayer practice was “coercive” – forcing those present to conform to the faith of the commissioners.
The Defendants, the commissioners, argued that no one had been “coerced” in any manner into praying. It only happened that all of the commissioners were Christian and offered prayers consistent with their own faith. For the commissioners, this was a First Amendment issue, and the heart of the question before the court was whether public officials were free to pray according to the dictates of their consciences.
In its decision, the Fourth Circuit agreed with defendants, saying that opening invocations offered by public officials has long been an accepted practice. The court said, “There is a clear line of precedent not only upholding the practice of legislative prayer, but acknowledging the ways in which it can bring together citizens of all backgrounds and encourage them to participate in the workings of government.”
The Fourth Circuit ruling also added, “On a broader level, and more importantly, the very ‘history and tradition’ anchoring the Supreme Court’s holding in Town of Greece underscores a long-standing practice not only of legislative prayer generally but of lawmaker-led prayer specifically. Opening invocations offered by elected legislators have long been accepted as a permissible form of religious observance…[W]e decline to accept the district court’s view that legislative prayer forfeits its constitutionally protected status because a legislator delivers the invocation. A legal framework that would result in striking down legislative prayer practices that have long been accepted as ‘part of the fabric of our society’ cannot be correct…”
Representing the Defense in the case was Brett Harvey of Alliance Defending Freedom as co-counsel along with David Gibbs of the National Center for Life and Liberty, Hiram Sasser of First Liberty, and Morgan, Lewis & Bockius LLP Partner Allyson Ho, who argued as lead counsel.
Dr. Mark Creech, executive director of the Christian Action League, said the win was “a real victory for religious freedom.”
“All of North Carolina, even the nation, owes a great debt of gratitude to the Rowan County Commissioners for their perseverance in this case. This battle goes back as far as 2012, when it first started. I commend their resolve, as well as that of the citizens of Rowan County, who stood with them. They’ve been an inspiration to many,” said Creech.
The case was decided by a three judge panel of the Fourth Circuit, which included Justices, G. Steven Agee, Dennis W. Shedd, and J. Harvie Wilkinson III. Agee wrote the majority opinion, in which Judge Shedd concurred. Judge Wilkinson wrote the dissenting opinion.
Wilkinson’s dissent echoed the arguments made previously by Justice Beaty. He said the message being delivered by the commissioners was one of exclusion, and the invocations made solely by commissioners of one faith threatened “to blur the line between church and state.”
The ACLU plans to ask for a full review by the entire Fourth Circuit.