Judge Halts Prayers ‘in Jesus’ Name’ at Meetings

     (CN) – A federal judge in North Carolina blocked Rowan County commissioners from opening board meetings by praying “in Jesus’ name.”
     U.S. District Judge James Beaty in Winston-Salem said the sectarian prayers, because they embrace a specific religion, likely violate the First Amendment’s religious liberty guarantee.
     Three Rowan County residents had sued the county in March, claiming the Christian prayers offended them and made them feel “excluded from the community.” They said they felt pressured to participate while attending board meetings, although none is a Christian.
     They successfully persuaded Beaty to issue a preliminary injunction Tuesday barring the county from continuing its practice of allowing sectarian prayers at county commissioner board meetings.
     “Plaintiffs have provided evidence that 97% of the board meetings since November 5, 2007, have included a sectarian prayer invoking the Christian faith, that no prayer has invoked a deity specific to any faith other than Christianity, and that commissioners have expressed their intent to continue delivering prayers in Jesus’ name at the start of the board meetings,” Beaty wrote.
     “Furthermore, Plaintiffs have shown that they intend to continue attending Board meetings in the future, but that they are offended by the sectarian prayers delivered therein and feel excluded from the community and the political process as a result of such prayers.”
     He said the plaintiffs “likely will suffer irreparable harm each time they attend a board meeting” absent an injunction.
     In the same 28-page order, Beaty rejected the county’s motion to dismiss, saying Rowan County’s prayer practices “are at least comparable to, and arguably more egregious than, other legislative prayer practices struck down” by other courts.
     The county had also asked Beaty to stay proceedings in the case until the U.S. Supreme Court hands down its decision in Galloway v. Town of Greece, N.Y.
     In that case, the 2nd Circuit reinstated similar claims against officials in Greece, N.Y., who also opened their meetings in Christian prayer. The three-judge panel in New York concluded that “an objective, reasonable person would believe that the town’s prayer practice had the effect of affiliating the town with Christianity.”
     Rowan County said Beaty should stay the present case, because the parties would likely need to “revisit the issue” in light of what the justices rule in Galloway.
     But the judge declined to speculate how the Supreme Court would rule.
     “[T]he applicable law, as it stands today, prohibits the type of sectarian legislative prayer at issue in Galloway and alleged in this case,” Beaty concluded.
     Chris Brook, legal director of the ACLU of North Carolina Legal Foundation, which represented plaintiffs Nancy Lund, Liesa Montag-Siegel and Robert Voelker, applauded Tuesday’s decision.
     “We are very pleased that the court reaffirmed one of the most basic principles of religious liberty — that all members of the community should be treated and welcomed equally by their government, regardless of their personal religious beliefs,” Brook said in a statement.

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