SALISBURY, N.C. – The American Civil Liberties Union and ACLU of North Carolina Legal Foundation (ACLU-NCLF) filed a federal lawsuit yesterday on behalf of three Rowan County citizens, demanding that the Rowan County Board of Commissioners stop its unconstitutional practice of opening government meetings with prayers that are specific to one religion.
The complaint, filed in the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of North Carolina, details how more than 97 percent of board meetings since 2007 have been opened with prayers specific to one religion, Christianity.
“I want my local government to be open and welcoming to people of all beliefs,” said Nan Lund, a Salisbury resident who is one of three plaintiffs named in the lawsuit. “But when officials begin a public meeting with prayers that are specific to only one religious viewpoint, I feel unwelcome and excluded.”
The commissioners, who deliver the prayers themselves, routinely call on Jesus Christ and refer to other sectarian beliefs during invocations. Opening invocations have declared that “there is only one way to salvation, and that is Jesus Christ,” as well as given thanks for the “virgin birth,” the “cross at Calvary,” and “the resurrection.”
“All citizens of Rowan County deserve to be treated equally by their government, regardless of their personal religious beliefs,” said Chris Brook, ACLU-NCLF Legal Director. “By refusing to obey the law and insisting on opening meetings with prayers that are specific to only one religion, the Rowan County Commissioners have created an environment where citizens of different beliefs are made to feel alienated. In order to make local government more welcoming to citizens of all beliefs, officials must end this unconstitutional practice at once.”
A 2011 ruling by the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals in another ACLU case, Joyner, et al. v. Forsyth County Board of Commissioners, made clear that, if local boards decide to open meetings with invocations, the prayers may not indicate a preference for one faith. After the U.S. Supreme Court declined to review that ruling, more than 20 local governments throughout North Carolina changed their opening invocations in order to comply with the law.
“Matters of faith are deeply personal. When the government appears to be taking the side of one religion over others, it gives rise to the very type of religious divisiveness and exclusion that the First Amendment seeks to avoid,” said Heather L. Weaver, staff attorney for the ACLU’s Program on Freedom of Religion and Belief.
The lawsuit, Lund, et al. v. Rowan County, and supporting documents can be found below. In addition to Brook and Weaver, the plaintiffs are represented by Daniel Mach, Director of the ACLU’s Program on Freedom of Religion and Belief.
Pictured from left: ACLU-NC Legal Director Chris Brook with plaintiffs Nan Lund, Robert Voelker, and Liesa Montag-Siegel.