How a Meeting That Opened with Prayer in North Carolina Ended Up in Court

What this ruling against a group of elected officials really means — and where it goes from here

by Alanna Durkin Richer | Updated 17 Jul 2017 at 8:35 PM

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Elected officials in North Carolina violated the Constitution by opening their meetings with Christian prayers and inviting audience members to join. That’s according to a federal appeals court that ruled Friday, July 14, in a closely watched case that could end up in the Supreme Court.

The 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a lower court ruling that found the Rowan County Board of Commissioners’ prayer practice to be “unconstitutionally coercive.”

The Supreme Court already has ruled that it's appropriate for local clergy to deliver predominantly Christian prayers in town meetings in New York.

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 was coercive.

The 4th Circuit, located in Richmond, Virginia, stressed that it's not inherently unconstitutional for lawmakers to lead prayers. But the fact that the Rowan County commissioners were the exclusive prayer givers combined with their consistently invoking one faith and inviting the audience members to participate sent the message that they preferred Christianity above other religions, the court said.

"The principle at stake here may be a profound one, but it is also simple. The Establishment Clause does not permit a seat of government to wrap itself in a single faith," Judge J. Harvie Wilkinson III wrote in the majority opinion that was joined by nine other judges.

Dissenting judges said the majority opinion can't be reconciled with Supreme Court rulings upholding government prayer. Judge Paul Niemeyer said the majority's decision "actively undermines the appropriate role of prayer in American civil life."

"In finding Rowan County's prayer practice unconstitutional, essentially because the prayers were sectarian, the majority's opinion strikes at the very trunk of religion, seeking to outlaw most prayer given in government assemblies, even though such prayer has been an important part of the fabric of our democracy and civic life," he wrote. Four other judges also dissented.

Related: Billy Graham on Today's Witchcraft: It's ‘Directly Opposed to God'

The full 4th Circuit heard the case in March after a divided three-judge panel said Rowan County commissioners had a constitutional right to open meetings with prayers as long as they don't pressure observers to participate.

The American Civil Liberties Union filed the lawsuit on behalf of non-Christians who say the prayers made them feel excluded and sent the message that the board favored a particular religion. (go to page 2 to continue reading) 

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