Federal court of appeals reviews prayer at Rowan Co. meetings

by: Brittney Johnson Updated:

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ROWAN COUNTY, N.C. - A controversial case over prayer at Rowan County commission meetings was heard Wednesday before a panel of 15 judges at the Fourth Circuit Court of appeals in Virginia.

The American Civil Liberties Union argued on behalf of three clients who sued the county, arguing that it is unconstitutional for Rowan County commissioners to instruct the audience to join them in mostly Christian prayers before meetings.

"It's something that is not to be taken lightly and it is a decision that has a lot of gravity," said ACLU legal director Chris Brooks. 

[READ MORE: Court rules prayer before Rowan Co. commissioner meetings violates Constitution]

The appeals court ruled against them last year and the ACLU is taking the fight to the next level.

The judge's on Wednesday questioned whether it matters that an opening prayer comes from an elected official, like it does in Rowan County, or a local clergy.

Channel 9 spoke to attorney David Gibbs, who is representing Rowan County in the case, about what happened in the courtroom.

"The court was wrestling with, how do we put a line forward that will show honor to our tradition, our heritage, protect the freedom of all involved and create a standard by which government and others would be able to reasonably operate," Gibbs said.

It will be the latest step in what has been a contentious battle since 2012.


Rowan County Prayer Timeline:

  • 2012: ACLU sent letter to Rowan County Commissioners requesting them to stop prayer at meetings
  • 2013: ACLU files lawsuit on behalf of three residents
  • 2014: U.S. Supreme Court ruled clergy-led prayers at public meetings as constitutional
  • 2015: Federal judge found Rowan County's prayer practice unconstitutional
  • 2016: Appeals court upheld the commissioner's right to pray

Rowan County is fighting to allow its commissioners to continue to lead prayers, while the ACLU argues that the practice excludes people who are not Christian.

A ruling by the full court isn't expected to happen any time soon. Attorneys involved in the case hope there is a decision by the end of the year.

The Fourth Circuit covers five states, including South Carolina and Virginia, and the outcome will impact each state.

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