North Carolina Prayer Before Meeting Unconstitutional, Court Rules

North Carolina Prayer Before Meeting Unconstitutional, Court Rules

North Carolina Prayer Before Meeting Unconstitutional, Court Rules

A federal appeals court says a North Carolina county commission's practice of opening meetings with Christian prayers and inviting audience members to join is unconstitutional. The court agreed 10-5 with the lower court ruling on the case.

Local boards may prefer to invite clergy members from the community to open their meetings in prayer, and under guidance from the Supreme Court, that option remains on the table. The question in the Rowan County case was whether it makes a difference that the prayers were given by the commissioners themselves and whether their invitation for the audience to join them in prayer is coercive.

"The principle at stake here may be a profound one, but it is also simple".

Writing for Friday's majority, Circuit Judge J. Harvie Wilkinson said it was not "inherently unconstitutional" for lawmakers to deliver invocations, but Rowan County violated the First Amendment's Establishment Clause by focusing on a single, preferred faith.

In the ruling, the court distinguishes this case from a 2014 U.S. David Gibbs III with the National Center for Life and Liberty represents Rowan County Commissioners. Four other judges also dissented including Judge Steven Agee.

The full court in Richmond, Virginia examined the case in March after a divided-three-judge panel endorsed the prayer practice as long as commissioners don't pressure others to participate.

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Ten judges sided with plaintiff Nan Lund and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), who argued that the county commissioners' practice of opening their meetings with Christian prayers effectively established official religion and discriminated against those in attendance who did not share the same beliefs. At one meeting, an individual who "expressed opposition to the Board's prayer practice" was booed and jeered by the audience, the plaintiffs said.

"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 a statement. Greg Edds, the board's chairman, told Reuters on Friday that they would be "reviewing it over the next several weeks with our legal team to decide where we go from here".

The First Liberty Institute is also involved in a similar case in MI.

The ACLU filed the lawsuit in 2013, on behalf of Lund and two other residents of Rowan County, located between Charlotte and Winston-Salem with a population of about 140,000.

"Instead of embracing religious pluralism and the possibility of a correspondingly diverse invocation practice, Rowan County's commissioners created a "closed-universe" of prayer-givers dependent exclusively on election outcomes", wrote Wilkinson.

The 4th Circuit said the intimate local board meeting setting, as opposed to a gathering of Congress or state lawmakers, increases the risk that residents would feel coerced to participate in the prayers moments before seeking approval for things such as zoning petitions and permits applications. That is not a strike against Christianity or even one against prayers at government meetings.

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