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U.S. Supreme Court Decision May Impact Rowan County Prayer Dispute

Rowan County

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled that opening prayers with references to Christianity during government meetings do not violate the U.S. Constitution.

This decision may impact a trial in Rowan County filed by residents who say they feel excluded when county commissioners open council meetings in the name of Jesus.

The Supreme Court case, Greece v. Galloway, was filed in 2008 by two residents of a town in Greece, N.Y. They claimed the town was violating the U.S. Constitution by opening its meetings with sectarian prayers – or prayers that mention of one specific religion – in this case Christianity.

On Monday morning, Supreme Court justices ruled 5-4 that the town's policy does not violate the “establishment clause” of the First Amendment, which prohibits making any law respecting an establishment of religion.

Rowan County Commission Chairman Jim Sides says the Supreme Court decision was like Neil Armstrong becoming the first man to walk on the moon.

"It's one small step for man, one giant step for mankind," Sides says. "This is a victory for the American people, a recognition of their constitutional rights. This decision will resonate across America."

Last year, the ACLU sued Rowan County in U.S. District Court on behalf of three Salisbury residents over its practice of opening meetings with prayers. The lawsuit says 97 percent of prayers at Rowan County Commission meetings since 2007 have made reference to one religion – Christianity.

In July, a judge prohibited the Rowan Commission from opening its meetings with sectarian prayers until the case is decided. Sides says commissioners stopped saying Jesus in their prayers, but continue to use Christian references.

"According to them, we cannot pray in Jesus name, now I don't know who they think Jesus is – but he's the Lord of Lords and King of Kings if nobody's told them," Sides says.   

According to them, we cannot pray in Jesus name, now I don't know who they think Jesus is, but he's the Lord of Lords and King of Kings. -Rowan County Commission Chair Jim Sides

Sides says he's waiting for the injunction to be lifted, but Charlotte School of Law Professor Daniel Piar says the entire Rowan County case may be overturned.

"As I read this decision by the Supreme Court, they really want to give governments quite a lot of leeway to have prayers that refer to specific religions or specific religious beliefs," Piar says. "So it would not surprise me if those cases essentially became moot in light of this new decision."

But the ACLU of North Carolina says there are differences between what was happening in Greece, N.Y. and Rowan County.

In Greece, the prayers were delivered by clergy members. In Rowan County the prayers are delivered by commissioners. The ACLU says that goes an extra step because it's an example of government officials favoring a religion.