RICHMOND, VA – The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit announced yesterday that the full court would reconsider a September 2-1 panel decision that allowed the commissioners of Rowan County, North Carolina, to continue their practice of opening meetings with prayers that coerced public participation and overwhelmingly advanced beliefs specific to one religion.
With the grant of en banc review, that panel decision will be vacated, and all 15 judges for the Fourth Circuit will now review a lower court decision that found the commissioners’ practice unconstitutional.
“We’re very pleased that the full Fourth Circuit has agreed to review this practice that is clearly out of step with the First Amendment’s protection of religious liberty,” said Chris Brook, Legal Director of the American Civil Liberties Union of North Carolina, which represents three Rowan County residents in a challenge to the commissioners’ policy. “When people attend meetings of their local government, they should not have to worry about being coerced to participate in a sectarian prayer that goes against their beliefs and being discriminated against by local officials when they don’t.”
In a dissent to the Fourth Circuit’s September ruling, Judge J. Harvie Wilkinson wrote that the facts in Rowan County are a “conceptual world apart” from an invocation practice previously upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court in Town of Greece v. Galloway.
“The message actually delivered in this case was not one of welcome but of exclusion,” he wrote. “It is the combination of the role of the commissioners, their instructions to the audience, their invocation of a single faith, and the local governmental setting that threatens to blur the line between church and state to a degree unimaginable in Town of Greece.”
The ACLU of North Carolina and national ACLU Program on Freedom of Religion and Belief filed a lawsuit challenging the commissioners’ coercive prayer practice in March 2013 on behalf of Rowan County residents Nan Lund, Robert Voelker, and Liesa Montag-Siegel. In May 2015, a federal district court ruled the practice unconstitutional and ordered the commissioners to cease opening their meetings with coercive prayers that advanced one faith. U.S. Judge James Beaty ruled that Rowan County’s prayer practice “falls outside of the prayer practices approved in Town of Greece.” In September 2016, a divided three-judge panel of the Fourth Circuit overturned the district court decision and held that the prayers were permissible under the U.S. Constitution. Today’s decision by the full Fourth Circuit to grant en banc review vacates that panel decision.
The case marks the first time a federal appeals court has reviewed a government prayer policy since the U.S. Supreme Court held that clergy-led invocations used to open town council meetings in Greece, New York, were constitutional.
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. In Rowan County, the officials themselves deliver the prayers, meaning people of different beliefs have no opportunity to do so, and the commissioners instruct those present to stand and join in the prayer, leading many residents to feel coerced into participation.
Pictured: ACLU-NC Legal Director Chris Brook with Rowan County residents Nan Lund, Robert Voelker, and Liesa Montag-Siegel.