In the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court’s disastrous decision in Greece v. Galloway, it seemed there would be little hope of stopping local governments from opening their meetings with predominantly Christian prayers. But now it seems all is not lost thanks to a federal court decision this week that struck down sectarian invocations given before meetings in North Carolina.
The Rowan County, N.C., Board of Commissioners opened its meetings with Christian prayers 97 percent of the time between 2007 and 2013. The high court said in Greece that such overwhelming favoritism is permissible provided an attempt is made to accommodate other viewpoints. That case, however, dealt with official prayers given by clergy or others who were not elected officials.
Unlike in Greece, Rowan County’s commissioners were saying the prayers themselves before meetings. Judge James A. Beaty of the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of North Carolina said that was a constitutional problem because it coerced residents into participating in religious practices.
“When plaintiffs wish to advocate for local issues in front of the board, they should not be faced with the choice between staying seated and unobservant, or acquiescing to the prayer practice of the board,” Beaty wrote. “[T]he board’s 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.”
Beaty made sure to explain that the facts of this case, which was litigated by the American Civil Liberties Union of North Carolina and the ACLU Program on the Freedom of Religion and Belief, were different from Greece – in which a handful of non-Christians were allowed to give prayers before meetings.
“While an all-comers policy is not necessarily required, a nondiscriminatory one is,” he wrote. “When all faiths but those of the five elected Commissioners are excluded, the policy inherently discriminates and disfavors religious minorities.”
This decision represents Beaty’s second home run in as many chances on this issue. In 2010, he ruled in Joyner v. Forsyth County, a case argued by Americans United and the ACLU of North Carolina, that it was unconstitutional for Forsyth County commissioners to open meetings with sectarian prayers.
Observed Beaty, “[T]he prayers offered in the implementation of the Policy here did not reflect diversity and inclusiveness, and instead were divisive and had the effect of affiliating the Government with one particular belief.”
(Unfortunately that decision was later overturned by Greece.)
Even though Beaty’s decision does not change the outcome of Greece, and his latest ruling could be appealed to a higher court, it is encouraging to see that some federal judges understand the problems associated with legislative prayers.
As Beaty well knows, no one should be forced to participate in sectarian prayer practices in order to do business with their local government. Elected officials are there to serve all comers, not just those who share their personal religious dogma. Greece dealt a heavy blow to the wall of separation that is supposed to exist between church and state, but decisions like this one in Rowan County could help to rebuild that wall – one brick at a time.