By L.A. Williams
Christian Action League
Six months after the U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear a case involving prayer at the start of public meetings, the Rowan County Board of Commissioners was ordered to pay $285,000 to the American Civil Liberties Union for legal fees. Members approved the payment Jan. 7, disappointed to turn over money from public coffers but still believing that religious freedom is worth fighting for.
Rowan County Commission Chairman Greg Edds told the media that commissioners weren’t just battling for their right to give sectarian prayers, but were defending elected leaders of all faiths.
“This was about elected officials, regardless of their faith tradition, being able to exercise their First Amendment rights,” he told the Salisbury Post. “We’ve said over and over that, as people of different faiths earn their ability to take these seats, that we would respect their right to provide any prayer that they want to do.”
He said the ACLU “bullies” small towns which often capitulate immediately to avoid legal action. That was not the case for five straight years in Rowan County.
With help from the National Center for Life and Liberty, a nonprofit legal ministry, commissioners fought back when the ACLU challenged their practice of commission members taking turns opening meetings in prayer.
The ACLU suit was first filed in 2013 on behalf of Nan Lund, Liesa Montag-Siegel and Robert Voelker. It claimed that the prayers, because they were mostly Christian, coerced those attending the meeting and made people of other faiths feel unwelcome.
A District Court ruled in favor of the ACLU in 2015, but a year later, a three-member panel of the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals found the practices constitutional by a 2-1 count. All 15 judges for the 4th Circuit then took up the case in 2017 and voted 10-5 against the commissioners, saying the prayers did violate the constitution. After that, the board had only one more option, asking the U.S. Supreme Court to weigh in and clear up the issue, especially since rulings in similar cases in other federal courts were so inconsistent.
“Schizophrenic” is how the Rev. Mark Creech, executive director of the Christian Action League describes the federal courts’ position on issues involving separation of church and state.
“It’s unconstitutional, no it’s constitutional, yes it’s unconstitutional. The justices who have now found Rowan County’s prayer practice unconstitutional demonstrate they know very little or nothing about our nation’s Christian heritage or the Constitution of the United States,” Creech said.
Similarly, after the Supreme Court refused to hear the case, Justice Clarence Thomas lamented that whether or not prayer is allowed at government meetings depends on where you live.
“State and local lawmakers can lead prayers in Tennessee, Kentucky, Ohio and Michigan, but not in South Carolina, North Carolina, Virginia, Maryland or West Virginia,” he wrote. “This Court should have stepped in to resolve this conflict.”
Creech said that while the High Court failed in its duty, the Rowan County Commissioners did the right thing by appealing their case to the bitter end.
“We owe them much appreciation for staying the course and fighting for our religious liberties,” Dr. Creech added. “Patrick Henry once argued that it could never be said too strongly or too often that our great nation was founded, not by religionists, but by Christians; not on many religions, but on the Gospel of Jesus Christ. And it is for this very reason that people of other faiths have been afforded asylum, prosperity, and freedom of worship here. It was Rowan County that was actually in synch with the American tradition and not the Anti-Christian Liberties Union. They not only plundered Rowan County of their money, but established a legal precedent requiring public officials check their faith at the door. God forgive them.”