RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — Does it matter whether a prayer opening a government meeting is led by local clergy or an elected official?
That's a question a federal appeals court is wrestling with in a unique case examining the constitutional requirement of separating church and state. The case will likely eventually wind up before the Supreme Court.
An attorney for a North Carolina county commission told the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals on Wednesday that the body's practice of beginning meetings with Christian prayers fits squarely under a high court decision in a similar case in 2014. The only difference in this case is that the Rowan County commissioners deliver the prayers themselves instead of local clergy members, attorney Allyson Ho said.
"The Supreme Court has expressly approved every feature of the county's prayer practice, save one: that the legislators pray," Ho said.
The full 15-judge panel of the Richmond-based court is examining the case after a divided three-judge panel ruled last year that the practice was constitutional as long as commissioners don't pressure others to participate.
The three-judge panel reversed a lower court decision siding with the American Civil Liberties Union of North Carolina, which filed the lawsuit on behalf of non-Christians who say the prayers made them feel excluded and sent the message that the board favored a particular religion.
"The broader issue here is whether we believe that you should be able to fully participate in the most direct form of governing ... without having religious beliefs pressed on you by your elected officials," said Chris Brook, an attorney for the ACLU of North Carolina, told reporters after the hearing.
The case marks the first time a federal appeals court has wrestled with this issue since the 2014 Supreme Court ruling upheld predominantly Christian invocations by local clergy members in the town of Greece, New York.
The judges peppered both sides with difficult questions and gave little clue as to how they might rule. They're expected to issue a decision in the coming weeks.
Brook said prayers by elected officials can be constitutional, as long as they make clear that they're being recited solely for the benefit of the legislators.
In this case, the Rowan County commissioners directed the public to participate, with phrases such as "please pray with me," and used language that could be seen as proselytizing, like "I pray that the citizens of Rowan County will love you Lord," Brook said.
Attorneys for Rowan County say commissioners don't force anyone to participate, noting that people can leave the room or stay seated during the prayer. Since the district court's decision declared the prayer practice unconstitutional, it has invited a volunteer chaplain to lead prayer.
"We certainly don't want judges editing or censoring prayers, that's what our Founding Fathers would have found very distasteful," said David Gibbs, an attorney with the National Center for Life and Liberty who is also representing Rowan County.
Nan Lund, one of the Rowan County residents who brought the case, said residents who don't agree with the prayers shouldn't have to worry whether they may be penalized when they bring something before the board because they didn't participate.
"They don't forget," Lund said after the hearing. "Maybe they don't deliberately target you, but they don't forget who those people are who didn't stand and pray."
Separately, the American Humanist Association said Wednesday it would ask the full 15-member 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals to hear its case challenging whether student-led prayer should be allowed at school board meetings. A three-judge panel ruled Monday that such prayers didn't run afoul of the prohibition against government-established religion.
Associated Press writer Kevin McGill in New Orleans contributed to this report.
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