Public prayer reviewed; 1st case since Supreme Court ruling

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Posted: Jan 26, 2016 2:29 PM

RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — A federal appeals court will consider whether county commissioners in North Carolina violated the Constitution by delivering Christian prayers at their meetings and inviting audience members to join.

The case marks the first time a federal appeals court has considered how local councils conduct prayers since a 2014 U.S. Supreme Court ruling upheld a New York town's use of predominantly Christian invocations at its meetings.

A three-judge panel of the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals is scheduled on Wednesday to hear Rowan County's effort to overturn a federal judge's ruling that local officials ran afoul of constitutional requirements separating church and state.

There is a key difference between the two cases: Rowan County commissioners delivered the prayers themselves, while the Town Board in Greece, New York, invited local clergy or laypeople to do so, according to a previous ruling by a federal judge in North Carolina.

The plaintiffs in the lawsuit filed in North Carolina claim the elected officials' delivery of the prayers was coercive, while the defendants argue that it's not unconstitutional for lawmakers to lead prayers.

The original lawsuit, filed by the American Civil Liberties Union on behalf of three residents, said nearly all prayers that opened Rowan County Commission meetings between 2007 and 2013 were Christian. Prayers typically ended with phrases such as "in the name of Jesus" or "in the knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ," their lawsuit said.

The plaintiffs, who are not Christians, said the prayers made them feel excluded and sent the message that the board favored a particular religion. They said they felt pressured to stand and participate because the commission and most of the audience would do so.

The board had no written policy on prayer, but county commissioners said in court documents that they were following a long-standing tradition and took turns delivering the prayer. They said citizens could leave the room or arrive after the prayer without affecting their ability to participate in the meetings.

The ACLU wrote the commission in February 2012 saying the prayers violated the Constitution. A federal court issued a preliminary injunction in 2013 halting the practice, and the judge made his decision permanent in May, nearly a year after the Supreme Court ruling.

Calling Rowan County's practice "unconstitutionally coercive," U.S. District Judge James Beaty Jr. noted "that Commissioners themselves are the sole prayer-writers and prayer-givers," distinguishing the case from the one decided by the Supreme Court.

In recent months, the commission has had a chaplain deliver the opening prayer.

A lawyer for the National Center for Life and Liberty, which is representing Rowan County, said the county's practice has never been coercive.

"People can leave the room if they don't want to hear the prayer," Barbara Weller said.

Chris Brook, a lawyer for the ACLU, said the case marks the first time a federal appeals court has considered legislative prayer since the 2014 Supreme Court case.

"It's so important that citizens are able to engage with their government and with their elected officials without being coerced to adopt their religious beliefs," Brook said.

The appeals court ruling could affect how legislative prayer is handled across the states that make up the 4th Circuit: Maryland, North Carolina, South Carolina, Virginia and West Virginia. The appeals court in Richmond is expected to issue a written ruling sometime after this week's hearing. The Supreme Court ruling had already prompted some local boards to review or modify their prayer practices.

"Whatever ruling they hand down will certainly be watched closely by local governing boards and other Southern states," said Michael Bitzer, a professor of political science at Catawba College in Rowan County.

William Marshall, a law professor at the University of North Carolina, said the Supreme Court ruling left a number of questions open, such as what effect sectarian prayers may have on those who appear before local commissions.

"The reason why the court is dealing with this issue and why it was appealed is that there are a lot of ambiguities in what the law is," he said.