RICHMOND, Va. – The American Civil Liberties Union of North Carolina and three Rowan County residents will on March 22 ask a federal appeals court to uphold a lower court ruling that found that Rowan County commissioners violated the Constitution when they coerced public participation in prayers that overwhelmingly advanced beliefs specific to one religion.
All 15 judges on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit will hear oral arguments in the case during the en banc hearing. In October, the appeals court agreed to vacate and reconsider a divided 2-1 decision in September that found the practice constitutional.
“Our clients simply want to ensure that when they and others attend local government meetings, they will not have to worry about being coerced into participating in a sectarian prayer that goes against their beliefs and being discriminated against by local officials when they don’t,” said ACLU of North Carolina Legal Director Chris Brook. “We believe that the First Amendment is on our side, and we look forward to making our argument to the full appeals court.”
In a dissent to the 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 previously upheld 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, sectarian prayer and a request that the public join them in prayers that advanced one faith.
In 2014, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that clergy-led invocations used to open town council meetings in Greece, New York, were 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 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 do so, and the commissioners instruct those present to stand and join in the prayer, leading many residents to feel coerced and pressured into doing so.