RICHMOND, Va. – The full U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit today ruled 10-5 that the commissioners of Rowan County, North Carolina, violated the Constitution when they opened public meetings by coercing public participation in prayers that overwhelmingly advanced beliefs specific to one religion. The decision upheld a lower court ruling.
“This ruling is a great victory for the rights of all residents to participate in their local government without fearing discrimination or being forced to join in prayers that go against their beliefs,” said ACLU of North Carolina Legal Director Chris Brook, who argued the case. “We are very pleased that the full Fourth Circuit has upheld a bedrock principle of the First Amendment: that government should not be in the business of promoting one set of religious beliefs over others.”
The national ACLU Program on Freedom of Religion and Belief and the ACLU of North Carolina filed a lawsuit challenging the commissioners’ coercive prayer practice in March 2013 on behalf of three Rowan County residents.
“All we’ve ever wanted is for Rowan County to be a welcoming place for everyone, no matter their religious beliefs, and I am so glad that the court agrees that the Constitution is on our side,” said Nan Lund, the lead plaintiff in the case. “No one in this community should fear being forced by government officials to participate in a prayer, or fear being discriminated against because they didn’t participate in a prayer before a meeting for all the public.”
Between 2007 and 2013, more than 97 percent of the prayers delivered by Rowan County commissioners before public meetings were specific to one religion, Christianity. The commissioners had instructed those present to stand and join in the prayer, leading many residents to feel coerced and pressured into doing so.
“This decision serves as an important reminder that there are significant constitutional limits on government-sponsored prayer,” said Daniel Mach, director of the ACLU Program on Freedom of Religion and Belief.
In May 2015, a federal district court ruled Rowan’s 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.
Rowan County appealed that ruling and in September 2016 a divided 2-1 panel of the Fourth Circuit overturned the district court ruling. However, all 15 judges on the Fourth Circuit later agreed to vacate and reconsider that 2-1 decision. Oral arguments were held in front of all 15 judges in March 2017.