All members of the public – regardless of their personal religious beliefs – should feel welcome when they attend meetings of their local government that discuss issues affecting the community. But for years in Rowan County, North Carolina, that was not the case. The local county commissioners routinely coerced members of the public to participate in sectarian prayers – and in doing so, they violated the Constitution.

That was the central argument ACLU of North Carolina Legal Director Chris Brook made to all 15 judges on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit on March 22, when the full court sat en banc for arguments in a lawsuit the ACLU-NC filed four years ago on behalf of three Rowan County residents.

From 2007 to 2013, the Rowan County Commissioners regularly opened meetings by directing members of the public to stand and join them in prayers that overwhelmingly advanced beliefs specific to one religion, Christianity, with messages such as “the only way to salvation is through Jesus Christ” and “I pray the citizens of Rowan County will love you Lord, and put you first, Lord.”

This practice put residents with different beliefs in an untenable situation: participate in a sectarian prayer that went against their deeply held beliefs or fear being discriminated against by those public officials when they didn’t.

During the March 22 arguments in Richmond, Virginia, several judges expressed skepticism that such a practice was compatible with the First Amendment’s protection of religious liberty for all.

“The meetings over time express the view that Christianity is the preferred religion,” said Judge J. Harvie Wilkinson, who wrote a dissenting opinion last year arguing that “the message actually delivered in this case was not one of welcome but of exclusion.”

“The combination of the role of the commissioners, their instructions to the audience, their invocation of a single faith, and the local governmental setting ... threatens to blur the line between church and state to a degree unimaginable,” Wilkinson wrote in his October opinion.  

Judge Barbara Milano Keenan asked the attorneys for Rowan County how the practice didn’t discriminate against religious minorities who give public comment at meetings. She gave the example of a local synagogue asking the commissioners for a zoning easement.

If I am a Jew, Keenan asked, “and I am being told that Jesus Christ is the only way to salvation, and I do not believe in Jesus Christ … how can I not be implicitly coerced by the nature of the prayers and the identity of the prayer giver? … How can I feel as a citizen of that county … that I have any chance before the elected body of fair and equal consideration?”

Judge Wilkinson said he worried that such divisive practices would create dangerous disputes within communities, and he noted that in a recent Rowan County election, prayer at public meetings was used as a campaign issue. “It bothers me that we are on our way to make a willingness to pray to be a test for public office,” he said.

When Rowan County’s attorneys argued that legislative prayer has a long tradition in the United States, Judge James Wynn said he was offended by the concept that tradition alone could justify a practice. “Certainly if that was the case, we’d still have slavery,” he said.

From the beginning, Nan Lund, Bob Voelker, and Liesa Montag-Siegel, the three plaintiffs in the case, have been clear about their goals. “We in Rowan County have to be welcoming to people of all beliefs,” explained Bob on the courthouse steps after the arguments. “When I was there [at the commissioner meetings], I felt excluded and singled out because I didn’t agree with the prayers delivered.”

That, argued Brook, is exactly why the Fourth Circuit should uphold a lower court decision that found Rowan County’s practice unconstitutional. The appeals court ruling – which is not expected for several months – could have a wide-ranging impact on invocation practices in North Carolina and the other four states that fall under the Fourth Circuit’s jurisdiction.

Pictured: Plaintiffs Bob Voelker, Nan Lund, and Liesa Montag-Siegel with ACLU staff outside the courthouse March 22.