RICHMOND, VA – The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit will hold oral arguments on January 27 in the appeal of a federal court ruling that found the county commissioners of Rowan County, North Carolina, violated the Constitution when they coerced public participation in prayers that overwhelmingly advanced beliefs specific to one religion.

“Residents should be able to attend and participate in local government meetings without being subjected to religious coercion or the fear that government officials may discriminate against them because they hold different beliefs,” said Chris Brook, Legal Director for the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of North Carolina Legal Foundation. “We look forward to presenting our case to the Fourth Circuit in order to ensure that local government meetings in Rowan County are welcoming to all community members.”

The ACLU-NC Legal Foundation 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. Between 2007 and 2013, more than 97 percent of the prayers delivered by commissioners before public meetings were specific to one religion, Christianity. In May 2015, a federal district court ruled the practice unconstitutional and ordered the commissioners to cease opening their meetings with prayers that coerced public participation and had the effect of discriminating against religious minorities in the community.

The case may be the first time a federal appeals court has reviewed a government prayer policy since the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the invocation practice of Greece, New York, was constitutional. In his May 2015 ruling, U.S. District Judge James Beaty ruled that Rowan County’s prayer practice “falls outside of the prayer practices approved in the [U.S. Supreme Court decision] in Town of Greece.”

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 lead the prayers, and the commissioners instruct those present to stand and join in the prayer, leading many residents to feel coerced and pressured into doing so. 

“While an all-comers policy is not necessarily required, a nondiscriminatory one is,” Beaty wrote in his ruling. “When all faiths but those of the five elected Commissioners are excluded, the policy inherently discriminates and disfavors religious minorities.”

“As the district court recognized, the First Amendment bars local governments like Rowan County from coercing residents to participate in government-sponsored prayer,” said Daniel Mach, Director of the ACLU Program on Freedom of Religion and Belief.  “The county’s prayer policy is religiously divisive and unconstitutional.”

Read the ACLU’s brief to the Fourth Circuit here.