ROWAN COUNTY, N.C. - The United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit has ruled 10-5 that the commissioners of Rowan County violated the Constitution when they opened public meetings with prayer.
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 Rowan County manager told Channel 9 that the county is studying the decision.
The prayer fight has been going on since 2012.
The national ACLU Program on Freedom of Religion and Belief and the ACLU of North Carolina filed a lawsuit challenging the commissioners’ prayer practice in March 2013 on behalf of three Rowan County residents.
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 are constitutional
- 2015: Federal judge found Rowan County's prayer practice unconstitutional
- 2016: Appeals court upheld the commissioner's right to pray
- 2017: U.S. Appeals court rules prayer at meeting unconstitutional
“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.”
In May 2015, a federal district court ruled Rowan County’s practice unconstitutional and ordered the commissioners to cease opening their meetings with 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 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.
Channel 9 reporter Tina Terry spoke to an attorney for the county, who said there has been no decision whether to appeal the case yet. If they do, she said, the next step would be to take the case all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.
The ACLU challenged the county in 2013 leading to the court battle, but political scientist Michael Bitzer said the case may not end here.
“It would lend itself to being a classic Supreme Court case to review because there is a question of how much involvement can an elected official have in professing religious beliefs through prayer, particularly at an open meeting?”
An attorney for Rowan County said she is reviewing the latest decision and will talk to county commissioners about whether to appeal the case.
If they appeal, Bitzer said it's unclear if the court would accept the case, or how it would rule.
The Supreme Court has ruled a similar case that prayer has a place in public meetings, but the 4th circuit has said Rowan County went too far.
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