Fourth Circuit Rules County’s Pre-Meeting Prayers Were Unconstitutional

RICHMOND, Va. (CN) – An en banc Fourth Circuit on Friday ruled that commissioners in Rowan County, North Carolina violated the constitution by opening public meetings with participation in prayers that are specific to one religion.

The 10-5 ruling upheld a lower court ruling.

The Rowan County board of county commissioners has a long-time practice of opening its meetings with a prayer.

The American Civil Liberties Union of North Carolina sued it in 2013 behalf of three local residents who said the prayers overwhelmingly favored one set of religious beliefs over others and violated their rights under the First and Fourteenth Amendments.

The complaint said that four out of five prayers offered before the meetings — a total of 139 out of 143 — were specific to a single religion: Christianity.

This, the ACLU said, flies in the face of the Fourth Circuit’s 2011 ruling in Joyner, et al. v. Forsyth County Board of Commissioners, in which the court said if local boards decide to open meetings with invocations, the prayers may not indicate a preference for one faith.

In 2013, U.S. District Judge James Beaty Jr. ruled in favor of the ACLU and the three residents, ordering the commissioners to commissioners to end their prayer practice pending a final decision in the case.

Two years later, Beaty issued his final decision, holding that Rowan County’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.

But in September 2016, the Fourth Circuit reversed that ruling, saying Judge Beaty had misinterpreted the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Greece v. Galloway, that had been a basis for his ruling.

“In essence, the district court treated the Supreme Court’s jurisprudential silence on lawmaker-led prayer as conclusively excluding legislators from being permissible prayer-givers to their own legislative bodies,” the three-judge panel said.

“On a broader level, and more importantly, the very ‘history and tradition’ anchoring the Supreme Court’s holding in Town of Greece underscores a long-standing practice not only of legislative prayer generally but of lawmaker-led prayer specifically,” it continued. “Opening invocations offered by elected legislators have long been accepted as a permissible form of religious observance.”

The plaintiffs appealed for and secured a hearing before all 15 Fourth Circuit judges and oral arguments were heard in March.

On Friday a majority of judges on the appellate court said Rowan County’s practice of saying prayers representing only one faith at the public-attended government events violates the Establishment Clause of the U.S. Constitution.

“We conclude that the Constitution does not allow what happened in Rowan County,” U.S. Circuit Judge Harvie Wilkinson wrote on behalf of the majority. “The prayer practice served to identify the government with Christianity and risked conveying to citizens of minority faiths a message of exclusion.”

Wilkinson noted “[r]uling in the county’s favor would send us down a rancorous road. It would bear ‘unfortunate consequences for American pluralism, for a nation whose very penny envisions one out of many, a nation whose surpassing orthodoxy belongs in its constitutional respect for all beliefs and faiths, a nation which enshrined in the First and Fourteenth Amendments the conviction that diversity in all of its dimensions is our abiding strength.’”

U.S. Circuit Judge Diana Gribbon Motz wrote a concurring opinion.

U.S. Circuit Judges Paul Niemeyer and G. Steven Agee wrote dissenting opinions both based on the premise that the Supreme Court’s ruling in Greece upheld the prayer practice in the context of a small local political assembly, both warn of potentially chilling permissible free speech.

“Make no mistake, while the majority purports to have no problem with the idea of lawmaker-led legislative prayer in the abstract, its reasoning actually leaves no room for lawmakers to engage in the full panoply of legislative prayer practices to which Town of Greece grants constitutional protection,” Niemeyer wrote. “The lawmaker’s mere status as a prayer giver is viewed with immediate skepticism, and any sectarian content to his or her prayers is deemed to have an added coercive effect. Moreover, the majority refrains from providing any guidelines as to when, if ever, lawmaker-led legislative prayers can meet their newly minted constitutional standards.

“Indeed, the only safe practice for lawmakers who want to offer a legislative prayer is to ignore what Marsh and Town of Greece permit and offer only a generic prayer to a generic god,” he continued. “The Rowan County legislative prayer practice falls within the historical traditions recognized in Marsh and Town of Greece and the principles the Supreme Court articulated in both cases. It is constitutional. For all these reasons, I would reverse the district court’s judgment and enter final judgment for Rowan County.”

Attorney Chris Brook, who argued the case for the ACLU of North Carolina said the ruling was “a great victory for the rights of all residents to participate in their local government without fearing discrimination or being forced to join in prayers that go against their beliefs.”

“We are very pleased that the full Fourth Circuit has upheld a bedrock principle of the First Amendment: that government should not be in the business of promoting one set of religious beliefs over others,” Brook said.

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