RICHMOND, VA – The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit will hold oral arguments on Wednesday, 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. Between 2007 and 2013, more than 97 percent of the prayers delivered by commissioners before public meetings were specific to one religion, Christianity.
The ACLU-NC Legal Foundation and national ACLU Program on the 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, sectarian prayer and a request that the public join them in prayers that advanced one faith.
The case will 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. 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, 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. “When all faiths but those of the five elected Commissioners are excluded, the policy inherently discriminates and disfavors religious minorities.”