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Appeals Court Rules Rowan County Prayer Practice Unconstitutional

Rowan County Commissioners listen to a chaplain's prayer before a meeting in June 2017.
Rowan County

A federal appeals court ruledFriday that Rowan County’s practice of having elected officials open meetings with Christian prayer and asking residents to join is unconstitutional. That reverses a previous 2016 decision from the same circuit. 

For more than five years a member of the Rowan County Commission would start a meeting by asking everyone to rise and join in worship. A 10-5 ruling from the full Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals found the prayers were unmistakably Christian, many included the words Jesus, Christ or Savior. The three residents in the county northeast of Charlotte that brought the suit said the commissioners sent a message they favored Christians and caused others to feel excluded. Chris Brook with the American Civil Liberties Union of North Carolina represents those residents.

“I think it’s an exceptionally important precedent that you can’t coerce people to participate in prayers that are led by the very embodiment of the state,” Brook said. “I think that it is going to provide useful guidance for local governments.”  

In the ruling, the court distinguishes this case from a 2014 U.S. Supreme Courtruling that allows the opening of public meetings by a clergy member. The court ruled that practice is constitutional as long as clergy from multiple faiths can offer the prayer and don’t coerce participation. David Gibbs III with the National Center for Life and Libertyrepresents Rowan County Commissioners.

“I think it is an arrogant opinion that we the judges know better than the people,” Gibbs said. “And the reality is if people are uncomfortable with the conduct of their elected officials they can certainly vote in others.”

He adds the county has not yet decided whether to appeal the case.  Gibbs said while the case is ongoing, county commissioners are either praying ahead of meetings, bringing in a chaplain to lead prayer, or reading what calls disclaimers before the prayer.