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Supreme Court Will Not Hear Rowan County Prayer Case

Phil Roeder / Flickr

The U.S. Supreme Court is leaving in place a decision that barred Rowan County commissioners from opening meetings with Christian prayers.

The high court’s decision not to hear the case means a 2017 ruling that the practice violated the First Amendment stands. In a 10-5 decision, the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond, VA, said the commissioners' practice of leading the prayers themselves and inviting the audience to join, always in the Christian faith, established Christianity as a preferred religion. The county voted 5-0 in September 2017 to appeal the circuit court’s decision to the high court. 

The case started when three residents sued the county in 2013, with the help of the American Civil Liberties Union. The three residents were non-Christian. One was Jewish. They argued that the policy was coercive, pressuring residents to join in or stand during the prayer. 

Credit Rowan County
Rowan County Commissioners stand as they are led in prayer by the commission's chaplain.

Prayers during commission meetings have not stopped while the suit has made its way through the courts. County commissioners have invited non-elected persons to lead prayers, such as a public safety chaplain. 

Rowan County isn’t the only governing body in North Carolina that’s been sued over prayers in meetings, according to the Charlotte Observer. The Union County board of commissioners and the Kannapolis City Council have faced criticism for the practice, among others. 

Justice Clarence Thomas said in his dissent that he'd have taken the case. 

"This analysis failed to appreciate the long history of legislator-led prayer in this country, and it squarely contradicted a recent decision of the Sixth Circuit,” Thomas wrote. “I would have granted Rowan County’s petition."

Thomas points to a September 2017 case where the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals in Cincinnati ruled that it was legal for the elected board in Jackson County, Mich., to start meetings with commissioner-led prayers. The need to resolve the conflict between the fourth and sixth circuits’ rulings had some thinking that the high court would hear the case.