Georgia County May Open Meetings With Sectarian Prayer, Says Appeals Court

A Georgia county’s practice of opening its meetings with sectarian prayer does not violate the U.S. Constitution, a federal appeals court has held.

The 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled 2-1 Oct. 28 that governmental bodies in Cobb County may use prayers that include references to specific deities. The practice had been challenged by Americans United and the American Civil Liberties Union of Georgia.      

Attorneys for Americans United and the ACLU pointed out that most of the prayers at the Cobb County Commission and the Cobb County Planning Commission were Christian in character. The organizations represented local taxpayers who opposed the county’s prayer policy.

The ruling in Pelphrey v. Cobb County conflicts with a 1983 decision by the Supreme Court allowing chaplain-led prayers at state legislative sessions but suggesting that such invocations must be non-sectarian and non-proselytizing. Other federal courts have upheld the high court’s ruling (Marsh v. Chambers).

The lead opinion was written by Judge William Pryor. Pryor ruled that government should not have any role in determining the content of prayers and approved a Cobb County scheme whereby commissioners draw names randomly from a list of clergy to lead pre-meeting prayers. About 70 percent of the prayers have been Christian in nature.

“Whether invocations of ‘Lord of Lords’ or ‘the God of Abraham, Issac and Mohammed’ are ‘sectarian’ is best left to theologians, not courts of law,” Pryor wrote.

U.S. District Judge Donald M. Middlebrooks dissented.

“I concur with the majority that judges, as representatives of the government, have no business editing or evaluating the content of prayer,” observed Middlebrooks, who was sitting on the appeals court panel by designation. “However, I also believe that sponsorship of prayer by these commissions presents a similar, although less direct, danger. When state sponsored prayer is a perfunctory and sterile exercise marking the beginning of a commission agenda, religion becomes the casualty.”

Middlebrooks noted the hazards of “ecclesiastic rule” to both religion and government.

“In this country,” he concluded, “pious politicians who compete for support through public professions of their own rectitude and devotion take a step toward those hazards, and religion becomes less meaningful through the hollow prayers spoken with the dual purpose of seeking a divine audience and appealing to a secular one.”

Middlebrooks said the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of prayers to open Congress and state legislatures because of long historical precedent, but he didn’t think that exception to the general rule of church-state separation should be extended broadly to other circumstances.

Reflecting on the Cobb County ruling, Americans United Executive Director Barry W. Lynn said, “The Constitution gives government officials no authority whatsoever to prefer one religion over others. This decision is very disappointing.”

Ayesha N. Khan, AU’s legal director, said Pryor reached the wrong conclusion.

“Citizens of all faiths and none should feel welcome at county council meetings,” Khan said. “When meetings begin with sectarian prayers, some people are inevitably going to be left out. That needlessly divides the community.”

Pryor, formerly the attorney general of Alabama, was known for his activism on behalf of Religious Right causes during his tenure in that state. For example, he vigorously defended Alabama Chief Justice Roy Moore, who sought to erect a Ten Commandments monument in the state Judicial Building.

During an April 12, 1997, pro-Moore rally in Montgomery, Pryor told a raucous crowd, “God has chosen, through his son Jesus Christ, this time, this place for all Christians – Protestants, Catholics and Orthodox – to save our country and save our courts.”

President George W. Bush nominated Pryor to the appeals court in April of 2003.

Despite spirited opposition from AU and other groups, the Senate approved Pryor’s nomination to the lifetime seat.