Americans United Asks Federal Court To Strike Down N.C. County’s Prayer Practice

Government Officials Coerced Citizens To Participate in Christian Prayer, Church-State Watchdog Group Says

The Rowan County, N.C., Board of Commissioners’ practice of coercing citizens to participate in Christian prayers at its meetings should be struck down, Americans United for Separation of Church and State says.

In a friend-of-the-court brief filed yesterday with the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, Americans United notes that since at least November 2007, Rowan County officials opened their meetings with Christian prayers nearly 100 percent of the time. These Christian prayers, which were given by the commissioners themselves, repeatedly referenced “Jesus” and “the Savior” and urged Rowan County residents to “love you lord and put you first.” The commissioners also instructed attendees to join in those prayers.

“The Rowan County commissioners are sending a clear message to their constituents: If you don’t participate in our Christian prayers, you are not welcome here,” said the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United. “No government should ever pressure its citizens to participate in religious exercises.”

Although the U.S. Supreme Court said in 2014’s Town of Greece v. Galloway that the government may allow guest chaplains to deliver prayers associated with their religious traditions, that case dealt with prayers given by speakers who were not elected officials. The court made clear that government officials had never directed citizens to participate in those prayers.

In May, U.S. District Court Judge James A. Beaty said Rowan County’s prayer practice was a constitutional problem because it discriminated against non-Christians and coerced residents into participating in religious practices. The commissioners appealed that decision.

In its brief, Americans United explains that the county commissioners have far more power to coerce their constituents into violating their consciences than do invited chaplains.

“These practices put intolerable pressure on citizens – including religious minorities and nonbelievers – to violate their conscience by participating in Christian religious exercises,” AU asserts. “Because citizens attend Board meetings to petition their government and obtain assistance or relief from the Board, the Commissioners exercise power over the lives of citizens that a guest chaplain does not. Citizens will reasonably fear that refusing to participate in the prayers, delivered by the very officials who are about to hear and decide their pleas, will jeopardize their chances of obtaining a favorable decision.”

“All of Rowan County’s residents—including religious minorities and nonbelievers—have the right to participate in their local government without being pressured to participate in unwanted prayers,” said Gregory M. Lipper, Americans United’s senior litigation counsel. “The County’s practices are way over the First Amendment line.”

The brief for Lund v. Rowan County was written by Lipper, AU Legal Director Richard B. Katskee and Steven Gey Fellow Bradley Girard. (Girard is admitted in New York only and is supervised by Katskee). It was joined by the American Humanist Association, Anti-Defamation League, Center for Inquiry, Freedom From Religion Foundation, Interfaith Alliance Foundation, Sikh Coalition, Union for Reform Judaism and Women of Reform Judaism. 

Americans United is a religious liberty watchdog group based in Washington, D.C. Founded in 1947, the organization educates Americans about the importance of church-state separation in safeguarding religious freedom.