Local government meetings are a vital part of American democracy. Unlike the U.S. Congress and most state legislatures, town council and county commission meetings commonly allow space for local residents to stand before their elected officials and others in attendance to make public comments on the issues of the day.  It’s an opportunity provided equally to all citizens. Rowan County, North Carolina, is no exception to this practice.

However, in recent years, the Rowan County Commissioners have conducted their public meetings in a way that has not only made many residents feel unwelcome and unequal but has also coerced those in attendance to take part in prayers that do not comport with their personal religious beliefs.

From 2007 to 2013, the five commissioners opened virtually all of their meetings by directing those gathered in the audience to stand and join them in a prayer. Ninety-seven percent of the time that prayer was specific to one religion, Christianity. During one invocation, for example, Commissioner Jon Barber instructed all assembled to stand for a prayer during which he declared that “we do believe that there is only one way to salvation and that is Jesus Christ.”

This practice has had a very real impact on Rowan County residents who do not share the commissioners’ beliefs; they feel excluded by the invocation and forced to participate or risk raising the ire of the very same board members whom they often were petitioning on an issue.

No resident should have to suffer this type of exclusion and religious coercion merely to participate local government.  So, in 2013, the ACLU of North Carolina and the ACLU filed a federal lawsuit on behalf of three longtime Rowan County residents, demanding that Rowan County end its unconstitutional practice. In May 2015, a federal court ruled that the commissioners did indeed violate the Constitution when they coerced public participation in their prayers.

The commissioners are appealing that ruling to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit by arguing that their practice is similar to the invocation practice of Greece, New York, which the U.S. Supreme Court has deemed constitutional. 

But in a brief filed earlier this month, the ACLU and our clients highlight the key distinctions between the prayer practices in Greece and Rowan County.

In Greece, officials invited religious leaders to give prayers for the benefit of board members at the start of meetings. People of different religious traditions, including members of the Jewish, Baha’i, and Wiccan faiths, delivered those invocations, and the board members themselves never directed residents to participate in the prayers. But in Rowan County, the officials themselves deliver the prayers, meaning people of different beliefs have no opportunity, and the commissioners instruct those present to stand and join in the prayer, leading many residents to feel coerced and pressured into doing so.  

To make matters worse, after some Rowan residents voiced concerns about the commissioners’ invocations, some commissioners responded by using their public positions to make derogatory comments about religious minorities.  “I am sick and tired of being told by the minority what’s best for the majority,” said then-board chairman Jim Sides in one instance. “My friends, we’ve come a long way – the wrong way. We call evil good and good evil.”

These comments fostered a hostile environment for dissenters: At one board meeting, the audience booed and jeered a resident who expressed opposition to the prayer practice. Such reactions show how divisive it can be to mix religion and government and why it is critical for public meetings to avoid such religious strife and be open and welcoming to all.

We trust that the Fourth Circuit will agree.