November 2016 Church & State - November 2016

Appeals Court Upholds N.C. County’s Policy On Municipal Prayer

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A federal appeals court in Sep­tem­ber upheld a North Carolina county’s controversial policy on government-sponsored prayer.

In Rowan County, N.C., members of the county board of commissioners open their meetings by leading the board and assembled members of the public in prayer.

All five board members are Christian, and, unsurprisingly, 97 percent of the prayers at the board meetings have been explicitly Christian in nature. Compounding that problem, the commissioners don’t just pray but request participation from mem­bers of the public. All residents of Rowan County who wish to observe or participate in the board meeting are asked by the commissioners to stand and join in the prayer.

In 2013, non-Christian residents of Rowan County sued, arguing that the commissioners’ practice of opening nearly every meeting with a Christian prayer made them feel like outsiders in their own community. A federal judge agreed and ordered the county commissioners to stop. However, the county appealed, and that judge’s order has now been reversed by a divided panel of the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

The majority opinion in the 2-1 decision in Lund v. Rowan County purports to follow the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2014 decision in Town of Greece v. Galloway; however, the two cases are very different. In Greece, N.Y., as in Rowan County, town meetings opened with a prayer – but that is where the similarity between the cases ends. In Greece, the prayers were led by private citizens, including both clergy and laypeople. And the prayers were not exclusively Christian, though the overwhelming majority were.

Judge Harvie Wilkinson was the lone dissenter. Wilkinson, a Reagan appointee who has previously upheld prayer at local government meetings, wrote about Rowan County, “I have seen nothing like it.”

The ACLU of North Carolina, which represents the plaintiffs, has said it will ask the entire 4th Circuit panel to review this decision.

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