RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — Elected officials in North Carolina violated the Constitution by opening meetings with Christian prayers and inviting audience members to join, a federal appeals court ruled Friday in a closely watched case that could end up in the Supreme Court.
The 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a lower court ruling that found the Rowan County Board of Commissioners' prayer practice to be "unconstitutionally coercive."
The Supreme Court already has ruled that it's appropriate for local clergy to deliver predominantly Christian prayers and town meetings in New York. The question in the Rowan County case was whether it makes a difference that the prayers were given by the commissioners themselves and whether their invitation for the audience to join them in prayer was coercive.
The 4th Circuit, located in Richmond, Virginia, stressed that it's not inherently unconstitutional for lawmakers to lead prayers. But the fact that the Rowan County commissioners were the exclusive prayer givers combined with them consistently invoking one faith and inviting the audience members to participate sent the message that they preferred Christianity above other religions, the court said.
"The principle at stake here may be a profound one, but it is also simple. The Establishment Clause does not permit a seat of government to wrap itself in a single faith," Judge J. Harvie Wilkinson III wrote in the majority opinion that was joined by nine other judges.
Dissenting judges said the majority opinion can't be reconciled with Supreme Court rulings upholding government prayer. Judge Paul Niemeyer said the majority's decision "actively undermines the appropriate role of prayer in American civil life."
"In finding Rowan County's prayer practice unconstitutional, essentially because the prayers were sectarian, the majority's opinion strikes at the very trunk of religion, seeking to outlaw most prayer given in government assemblies, even though such prayer has been an important part of the fabric of our democracy and civic life," he wrote. Four other judges also dissented.
The full 4th Circuit heard the case in March after a divided three-judge panel said Rowan County commissioners had a constitutional right to open meetings with prayers as long as they don't pressure observers to participate.
The American Civil Liberties Union 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.
Attorneys for Rowan County argued that the prayers fell within the bounds of the practice endorsed by the Supreme Court. The commissioners don't force anyone to participate, their attorneys said, noting that people can leave the room or stay seated during the prayer. Since the lower court's decision deemed the prayers unconstitutional, the commission has invited a volunteer chaplain to lead prayer.
Mike Berry of the First Liberty Institute — one of the firms representing the board — said the county will decide whether to appeal and no decision has been made. Berry, deputy general counsel for the group, said he believes the case is ripe for Supreme Court review because it conflicts with the justices' rulings and he was encouraged by the dissenting appeals court judges.
Berry is also involved in a similar case in Michigan. In that case, a divided three-judge panel of the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said the Jackson County Board of Commissioners' tradition of Christian-only prayers was unconstitutional. The full 6th Circuit heard arguments in the case last month.
If the two circuits split, the Supreme Court may feel more compelled to take up the issue.
The chairman of the Rowan County didn't immediately respond to an email Friday.
The 4th Circuit said the intimate local board meeting setting, as opposed to a gathering of Congress or state lawmakers, increases the risk that residents would feel coerced to participate in the prayers moments before seeking approval for things such as zoning petitions and permits applications. The judges also found it troubling that the commissioners' prayers sometimes implied that other faiths were "in some way condemned," with messages suggesting that Christianity was "the one and only way to salvation."
ACLU of North Carolina Legal Director Chris Brook, who argued the case, called the ruling a "great victory for the rights of all residents to participate in their local government without fearing discrimination."
"No one in this community should fear being forced by government officials to participate in a prayer, or fear being discriminated against because they didn't participate in a prayer before a meeting for all the public," Nan Lund, one of the residents who brought the case, said in a statement.
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