Exciting news: On Friday a federal appeals court issued a major victory for religious liberty in our case representing three Rowan County residents.
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit ruled with a decisive majority that Rowan County’s commissioners violated the Constitution when they routinely opened public meetings by coercing public participation in prayers that overwhelmingly advanced beliefs specific to one religion.
Writing for the majority, Judge J. Harvie Wilkinson III explained why such a practice falls outside the bounds of the First Amendment's protection of religious liberty:
"The principle at stake here may be a profound one, but it is also simple. The Establishment Clause does not permit a seat of government to wrap itself in a single faith. But here elected officials took up a ministerial function and led the political community in prayers that communicated exclusivity, leaving members of minority faiths unwilling participants or discomforted observers to the sectarian exercises of a religion to which they did not subscribe. The solemn invocation of a single faith in so many meetings over so many years distanced adherents of other faiths from that representative government which affects the lives of all citizens and which Americans of every spiritual persuasion have every right to call their own.
"If the prayer practice here were to pass constitutional muster, we would be hard-pressed to identify any constitutional limitations on legislative prayer."
One of the bedrock principles of the First Amendment is that our government should never promote one set of religious beliefs over others. This ruling is a great victory for the rights of all residents to participate in their local government without fearing discrimination or being forced to join in prayers that go against their beliefs.
As Nan Lund, the lead plaintiff in our case, said:
“All we’ve ever wanted is for Rowan County to be a welcoming place for everyone, no matter their religious beliefs, and I am so glad that the court agrees that the Constitution is on our side.”
It was an honor for me to represent our three clients, Nan, Bob, and Liesa, in court, and we are proud of this victory. While we believe this should be the final word in this case, Rowan County has the option of appealing the ruling to the U.S. Supreme Court.