U.S. Appeals Court Rules Commission’s Prayers Cannot Be Exclusively Christian

RICHMOND, Va. — The full Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals in Virginia has ruled that the prayers presented during a North Carolina commission’s meetings cannot be exclusively Christian, asserting that representing only one faith at the public-attended government events violates the Establishment Clause of the U.S. Constitution.

“We conclude that the Constitution does not allow what happened in Rowan County,” wrote Judge Harvie Wilkinson wrote on behalf of the 10-5 majority. “The prayer practice served to identify the government with Christianity and risked conveying to citizens of minority faiths a message of exclusion.”

As previously reported, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and ACLU of North Carolina Legal Foundation (ACLU-NCLF) had filed suit against the Rowan County commissioners in March 2013, complaining that their invocations have asserted that “there is only one way to salvation, and that is Jesus Christ,” and thank the Lord for the “virgin birth,” the “cross at Calvary” and “the resurrection.”

“I want my local government to be open and welcoming to people of all beliefs,” Nan Lund, a local resident who was among three plaintiffs named in the suit, stated in a news release announcing the legal challenge. “But when officials begin a public meeting with prayers that are specific to only one religious viewpoint, I feel unwelcome and excluded.”

In July 2013, federal Judge James A. Beaty Jr., nominated to the bench by then-President Bill Clinton, sided with the ACLU and the three complainants, ordering the commissioners to end their Christian prayer practice while the case moves forward in court.

Two years later, Beaty issued his final decision, declaring the prayers predominantly in Jesus’ name to be unconstitutional.

“The practice fails to be nondiscriminatory, entangles government with religion, and over time, establishes a pattern of prayers that tends to advance the Christian faith of the elected commissioners at the expense of any religious affiliation unrepresented by the majority,” he wrote.

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Beaty pointed to the 2014 Supreme Court ruling in Greece v. Galloway, which approved city council prayers in Greece, New York that were predominantly—but not solely—Christian. Beaty asserted that Rowan County’s practice was different because the prayers were only Christian since its commissioners all identify as Christians.

However, in September 2016, the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals used Greece v. Galloway to uphold the commission’s prayers. It disagreed with Beaty’s interpretation of the high court decision.

“In essence, the district court treated the Supreme Court’s jurisprudential silence on lawmaker-led prayer as conclusively excluding legislators from being permissible prayer-givers to their own legislative bodies,” wrote Judge G. Steven Agee, nominated to the bench by then-President George W. Bush.

“On a broader level, and more importantly, the very ‘history and tradition’ anchoring the Supreme Court’s holding in Town of Greece underscores a long-standing practice not only of legislative prayer generally but of lawmaker-led prayer specifically. Opening invocations offered by elected legislators have long been accepted as a permissible form of religious observance,” he said.

The ACLU consequently appealed to the full Fourth Circuit of 15 judges, which agreed to hear the case en banc. Following oral argument in March, the court issued its ruling on Friday. It said that while the commission may present prayers during public meetings, they cannot be exclusively Christian.

“The great promise of the Establishment Clause is that religion will not operate as an instrument of division in our nation,” wrote Judge Harvie Wilkinson. “Consistent with this principle, there is a time honored tradition of legislative prayer that reflects the respect of each faith for other faiths and the aspiration, common to so many creeds, of finding higher meaning and deeper purpose in these fleeting moments each of us spends upon this earth.”

“Instead of drawing on this tradition, Rowan County elevated one religion above all others and aligned itself with that faith. It need not be so,” he continued. “As the history of legislative invocations demonstrates, the desire of this good county for prayer at the opening of its public sessions can be realized in many ways that further both religious exercise and religious tolerance.”

Judge Agee again dissented, stating that Rowan County’s prayers are no different than those analyzed in the U.S. Supreme Court’s Greece v. Galloway ruling.

“[The] Town of Greece’s reference to a ‘pattern of prayers . . . over time’ must be understood in the context of that case. The period at issue there was 1999 to 2010, which encompassed some 120 monthly meetings, and for all but the last three years in that record, the prayers were offered solely from a Christian tradition. Even during those last three years, only four prayers were given from a non-Christian faith tradition,” he noted.

“If those circumstances did not constitute an impermissible pattern of prayers that advanced Christianity or otherwise crossed the line, neither do the facts of this case,” Agee said.

“In short, the prayers actually offered in [Marsh v. Chambers] and Town of Greece contained the same sort of pleas to the Christian God and to Jesus Christ, the same recognition of a Christian tenet of salvation and dependence on God’s favor, and the same generalized exhortations to obedience to Christian teachings as those prayers singled out for concern by the majority,” he noted. “If the prayers in Marsh and Town of Greece did not independently merit concern as to content, then neither do the prayers offered in Rowan County.”

The commission is considering appealing the ruling to the U.S. Supreme Court.


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  • Reason2012

    So notice now the ACLU is unwittingly admitting it’s legal for the meetings to start with a prayer, after how many years of lying about it being a violation of the “separation” clause. Now that this lie didn’t work, now they try another lie.

    • Ambulance Chaser

      1. Nobody ever cited a “separation” clause because none exists. Who are you quoting?

      2. Legal arguments that you disagree with or don’t like are not “lies.”

      • Reason2012

        Nobody ever cited a “separation” clause because none exists. Who are you quoting?

        Thank you for admitting the separation of church and state clause does not exist in the Constitution.

        Trying to make a lie your “legal argument” is still a lie.

        • Ambulance Chaser

          “Thank you for admitting the separation of church and state clause does not exist in the Constitution.”

          I never said it did. We do, however, have an Establishment Clause, which is applicable here.

          • Reason2012

            Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof;

            Please cite the law that was passed forcing them to open with a prayer.

            There isn’t one, so it wasn’t violated by holding prayer.

            Meanwhile please cite the law that says they do not have the freedom of religion to open with prayer.

            There can’t be one as that would be a violation of the Constitution.

            But at least you admit there’s no such thing as “separation of church and state” in the Constitution. I’ll save you quoting that and remind you when you bring it up again in the future.

          • Ambulance Chaser

            Are you unaware of case law or just unwilling to acknowledge it?

          • Reason2012

            Are you unaware of the Constitution or just unwilling to acknowledge it?

          • Ambulance Chaser

            I’m aware of the Constitution and aware that the cases that interpret it hold that any state action that takes even a single step toward establishing a religion is unconstitutional.

          • Reason2012

            I’m aware that there are activists judges that violate the Constitution and pretend laws can be passed prohibiting the free exercise of religion. Just like the SC judge who lied with Obamacare when democrats sold it as a fine and not a tax, and the SC judge lied and called it a tax so he could “pass” it as Constitutional.

          • Ambulance Chaser

            They “violate the Constitution?” Who says? You?

          • Spirit Plumber

            Do me a favor. Take a piece of paper and write down the First Commandment on it. Then take another piece of paper and write down the First Amendment on it. See how they don’t really mesh?

          • TheKingOfRhye

            “But at least you admit there’s no such thing as “separation of church and state” in the Constitution.”

            But there is. The Establishment Clause puts it there. Don’t believe me?

            “I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should ‘make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free
            exercise thereof,’ thus building a wall of separation between Church
            & State.” – Thomas Jefferson

            “Strongly guarded as is the separation between Religion & Govt in the Constitution of the United States the danger of encroachment by Ecclesiastical Bodies, may be illustrated by precedents already furnished in their short history.” – James Madison

          • Reason2012

            A Pastor wrote a letter to Jefferson expressing his fears that Jefferson would in some way restrict religious freedoms. In response to these fears, Thomas Jefferson wrote a letter back to indicate that he would in no way restrict the freedom of religious expression because he saw a wall of separation between church and state. It means the opposite of what the left tries to twist it into: that He would in no way restrict religion, not that it would instead be censored except where atheists give their permission.

          • TheKingOfRhye

            If you have a “wall of separation”, both sides are separated from the other. So, it works BOTH ways.

  • FoJC

    This again? Christians need to understand that the “opening prayer” in the vast majority of meetings (whether religious in nature or otherwise) is done for show. Those who follow Jesus don’t pray to be heard by others. Those who know Jesus pray to God. When you hear, “Let us pray” and someone begins talking into the microphone, they are preaching, not praying.

    Unfortunately, it’s becoming commonplace for people who pray in their own homes to be listened to by others. Technology has become intrusive, a tool to violate privacy and decency.

    Follow Jesus, find Wisdom.

    • Guzzman

      I agree with much of what you said, “When you hear, ‘Let us pray’ and someone begins talking into the microphone, they are preaching, not praying.” This is exactly what the commissioners did before a captive audience of people who were not necessarily Christian.

      In its decision, the Appeals Court specifically used the term “worship” to refer to the prayer exercises that everyone was instructed to join: “A commissioner then asks the community to join him in worship, using phrases such as ‘Let us pray,’ ‘Let’s pray together,’ or ‘Please pray with me.’ The invocations end with a communal ‘Amen’…”

      • Ambulance Chaser

        That’s pretty blatant.

        • Guzzman

          Yep, the invocations were nearly all sectarian: “Between November 5, 2007, and the filing of Plaintiffs’ Complaint, 139 of 143 Board meetings—in other words, 97%—opened with a Commissioner delivering a sectarian prayer invoking Christianity. For example, the prayers normally included references to Jesus, the Savior, and other tenets of the Christian faith. No invocation delivered since November 5, 2007, referenced a deity specific to a faith other than Christianity.” Lund, 103 F. Supp. 3d at 712.

          At one of the meetings, a citizen questioned the prayer practices of the Board and was booed and jeered by audience members. A video recording of this incident was submitted into evidence. Lund, 103 F. Supp. 3d at 729. Very terrifying indeed when government power is mixed with religion in this manner.

      • FoJC

        I’m not supporting the continued assault by Unbelievers against the practice of even the semblance of Christianity. If the roles were reversed, Muslims, Jews, Hindus, etc., would be crying discrimination.

        All one has to do is go to the countries dominated by their religions and see how the followers of Jesus are treated. One exception is Israel, since they need American money and military support to keep themselves from being over run by the Muslim nations around them. But, even in Israel true Christianity is ill-regarded, though tolerated.

        Follow Jesus, find Wisdom.

    • Reason2012

      If a person is starting such a prayer just to make it look like he’s a Christian, you’re right: that’s just for show.

      If Christians come together to seek God’s wisdom on decisions they’re about to talk about, then they are to pray collectively – we are left many examples of this in the NT. Just because there might be others there who are not Christian doesn’t mean those who are Christians and part of that decision process should no longer seek God’s wisdom and guidance by praying for it at the start of such meetings.

      • FoJC

        No. One person doesn’t pray for the group. That’s religious tradition.

        You should read what the Word of God said (says – since He is Eternal and doesn’t change) about prayer, rather than reason through accepted tradition.

        The prayer is said aloud to the group because it has an effect on them emotionally.

        Follow Jesus, find Wisdom.

        • Reason2012

          Sometimes one does pray for the group, but others can be praying along with them about the same things in their own words in their mind. Scripture shows this happened as well:

          “These all continued with one accord in prayer and supplication, with the women, and Mary the mother of Jesus, and with his brethren.”
          Acts 1:14

          “Sanctify ye a fast, call a solemn assembly, gather the elders and all the inhabitants of the land into the house of the LORD your God, and cry unto the LORD,”
          Joel 1:14

          “Now in the twenty and fourth day of this month the children of Israel were assembled with fasting, and with sackclothes, and earth upon them. And the seed of Israel separated themselves from all strangers, and stood and confessed their sins, and the iniquities of their fathers. And they stood up in their place, and read in the book of the law of the LORD their God one fourth part of the day; and another fourth part they confessed, and worshipped the LORD their God. Then stood up upon the stairs, of the Levites, Jeshua, and Bani, Kadmiel, Shebaniah, Bunni, Sherebiah, Bani, and Chenani, and cried with a loud voice unto the LORD their God. Then the Levites, Jeshua, and Kadmiel, Bani, Hashabniah, Sherebiah, Hodijah, Shebaniah, and Pethahiah, said, ‘Stand up and bless the LORD your God for ever and ever: and blessed be thy glorious name, which is exalted above all blessing and praise. Thou, even thou, art LORD alone; thou hast made heaven, the heaven of heavens, with all their host, the earth, and all things that are therein, the seas, and all that is therein, and thou preservest them all; and the host of heaven worshippeth thee.”
          Nehemiah 9:1-6

          Even there a few are praying for many…

          “And when they heard that, they lifted up their voice to God with one accord, and said, Lord, thou art God, which hast made heaven, and earth, and the sea, and all that in them is: Who by the mouth of thy servant David hast said, Why did the heathen rage, and the people imagine vain things?”
          Acts 4:24-25

          When someone is leading in prayer, we can pray along with them about the same things, but of course in our own words at the time.

          • FoJC

            You’re nitpicking words. I already know I’m right, not only because the Scriptures confirm it, but because the LORD has told me as well.

            You’re not proving me wrong, you’re just citing things that don’t pertain to what has been addressed. The vast majority of those who stand up and “pray” in front of others are not praying, but preaching – saying words to be heard by the audience. Truth.

            Not only that, but they aren’t speaking in Faith, just mouthing words.

            Follow Jesus, find Truth.

          • Reason2012

            Hello. Saying “you’re wrong” doesn’t prove anything. I’ve shown you scriptures that says otherwise, please feel free to address it and show scriptures to back up your point that it’s NEVER biblical for people to lead prayer in groups while others pray along with them.

            The vast majority of those who stand up and “pray” in front of others are not praying, but preaching – saying words to be heard by the audience.

            I’m not talking about when false Christians do it – catholicism does it falsely all the time. Addressing the fact that it’s Biblical for born again believers in God in a congregation to do so, which you seem to admit by saying it’s unbiblical in the “vast majority” and hence admit sometimes it’s not.

            So in Acts 1:14 they were not speaking in Faith, but just mouthing words?

            In Nehemiah 9:1-6 they were not speaking in Faith, but just mouthing the words?

            In Acts 4:24-25, they were not speaking in Faith, but just mouthing the words?

            No, they were speaking in faith, which is God showing us that such a method of prayer is one more Biblical way to do so – i.e., Scripture confirms it.

  • Guzzman

    The Commissioners, government representatives, have no business asking citizens to participate in Christian-only prayer exercises. Many community members were of minority faiths or non-believers. The Board used their government authority to control the content of the prayers, shut out any other citizens with different viewpoints from giving invocations, and instruct non-Christians and non-believers to stand and then join them in praising their savior.

    Immediately following the religious exercise, the Board turns to the business of adjudicating issues brought before them by the same people who either acquiesced or questioned the prayer practices of the Commissioners. Which citizens do you suppose will get a fair hearing – the acquiescent or the dissenters?

    The Supreme Court in Greece v. Galloway ruled that legislative prayer can be constitutional if it does not discriminate against other faiths, is inclusive, and is not imposed upon the audience by government officials. Normally, legislative prayer is given on a rotating basis by individuals representing a diversity of beliefs, and not by government officials themselves who ask that everyone participate. This decision was a huge victory for the First Amendment.

  • Ambulance Chaser

    I’m sure they did just fine in law school. “The Nation’s founding” is barely in the curriculum, if at all. But how to read, interpret, and apply case law is almost ALL of the curriculum, which is what the judges did.

  • msicairos

    People can argue or discuss all they want; Fact is that Jesus is the only one who died to forgive All the sins of mankind and reconcile us to the Father; It gets better; Jesus Resurrected from the dead. Jesus is the only way to the Father and to Heaven. Now if by your ignorance and unbelief you want to take another way or pray to your own god, go for it; But sooner or later we will find out our eternal destination; Death comes to all. I suggest you be wise a choose correctly; Its a matter of eternal death and life, in Heaven or Hell. I can’t imagine wise men would want to pray to a fake god.