A Bad N.C. Prayer Ruling Will Get Another Hearing

In September, a federal appeals court ruled that it is legal for members of the Rowan County, N.C., Board of Commissioners to open its meetings with a public prayer led by a board member.

Rowan County’s not a heavily urban area. It has a population of about 138,000. Not surprisingly, most of the prayers – about 97 percent – have been Christian in nature.

Americans United was disappointed with the 2-1 ruling by the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Lund v. Rowan County, a case brought by the American Civil Liberties Union. We filed a legal brief in the case and when the decision came down, we agreed with dissenting Judge Harvie Wilkinson. Wilkinson, an appointee of President Ronald Reagan, said of the Rowan County prayer policy, “I have seen nothing like it.”

Today there is some good news: The entire 4th Circuit Court has agreed to review that decision. I don’t want to get all legalistic on you, but this is a process known as an en banc hearing. Many more judges will be involved, and we’re hopeful for a better outcome.

As many of you know, Americans United in 2014 took the case of Greece v. Galloway to the Supreme Court. The decision was a disappointment. By a 5-4 vote, the majority allowed officials in Greece, N.Y., to open council meetings with prayers.

No one should be pressured to take part in prayer at a government meeting.

But there are differences between the two areas and their invocation policies. In Greece, the prayers were led by private citizens, including both clergy and laypeople. The prayers were not exclusively Christian, although the overwhelming majority were.

In Rowan County, officials are leading the prayers, and they are pressuring people who attend the meetings to take part. As AU notes in its legal description of the case, “The Commissioners have made statements suggesting that the County views non-Christian beliefs with disfavor, and they have created an atmosphere that led to the harassment of religious minorities at Board meetings.”

All of this makes a difference.

After the Greece ruling, Americans United launched Operation Inclusion, a project designed to ensure that prayers and invocations before government meetings respect the diversity of our nation.

There has been some resistance to this idea. In Pennsylvania, AU is suing over a House of Representatives’ policy that limits opening invocations to believers. We’re representing non-theists in court who believe they have something of value to tell legislators.

If lawmakers are intent on opening their deliberations with prayers or invocations – and many are, it seems – they should be willing to embrace a variety of religious and non-religious voices. This, after all, reflects the pluralism that has defined our nation for more than two centuries.

The policy in Rowan County doesn’t do that. Here’s hoping the full appeals court issues a ruling more in line with our fundamental values.