SALISBURY, N.C. — A board of commissioners in North Carolina has presented its prayer case to the U.S. Supreme Court, asking the nation’s highest court to hear its appeal of a Fourth Circuit ruling that declared that it was unconstitutional for prayers presented during the commission’s meetings to be exclusively Christian.
“Thousands of legislative bodies with tens of thousands of members and millions of citizens across nine states are now subject to conflicting legal regimes regarding one of the nation’s oldest traditions,” the petition, filed by Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) on behalf of the Rowan County Board of Commissioners, reads.
It notes that while the full Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled against the primarily Christian prayer practice in July, the full Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in a separate case last month that commissioners have a right to pray as they believe, even if that means that the entire board identifies as Christian.
“Legislatures in the remaining states must hazard a guess as to which approach to take,” ADF writes in light of the conflicting rulings. “As in [the U.S. Supreme Court ruling surrounding the] Town of Greece, this court’s review is required to resolve this intractable conflict on a recurring, exceptionally important issue of First Amendment law.”
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.
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. The court ruled 10-5 in July 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.”
However, ADF and the Rowan County Board believe that the ruling is flawed and is inconsistent with the U.S. Supreme Court’s Greece ruling.
“In Town of Greece, the legislative prayer practice involved a rotating group of volunteer clergy from the surrounding community—and this court emphasized that while ‘nearly all of the congregations in town turned out to be Christian,’ that did ‘not reflect an aversion or bias on the part of town leaders against minority faiths,'” the board’s appeal, filed on Thursday, reads.
“Rather, ‘[s]o long as the town maintains a policy of nondiscrimination, the Constitution does not require it to search beyond its borders for non-Christian prayer givers in an effort to achieve religious balancing,'” ADF wrote, quoting from the high court.
As previously reported, contrary to the Fourth Circuit ruling, the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld last month the predominantly Christian prayers of the Jackson County Board of Commissioners, finding that they do not violate the Establishment Clause of the U.S. Constitution.
It noted that “[s]ince the founding of our Republic, Congress, state legislatures, and many municipal bodies have commenced legislative sessions with a prayer,” and likewise pointed to the Greece ruling for support.
“At bottom, [the Plaintiff] has shown he was offended by the Christian nature of the board’s prayers. But ‘[o]ffense … does not equate to coercion,’” the majority wrote. “Jackson County therefore did not ‘engage in impermissible coercion merely by exposing [Plaintiff] to prayer [he] would rather not hear and in which [he] need not participate.’”
“As one of Jackson County’s commissioners stated, ‘Commissioners, as individuals, have a right to pray as we believe.’ Preventing Jackson County’s commissioners from giving prayers of their own choosing detracts from their ability to take ‘a moment of prayer or quiet reflection [to] set their mind to a higher purpose and thereby ease the task of governing,’” it declared.