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Appeals Court Says Rowan Commissioners Can Offer Prayers

A federal appeals court says it's legal for Rowan County Commissioners to deliver prayers before their meetings. The decision out Monday reverses a lower court ruling that declared the practice unconstitutional.

The American Civil Liberties Union sued the county three years ago on behalf of three citizens. They challenged the commission's practice of starting meetings with a Christian prayer led by a commissioner. They complained that the prayers were “coercive” and often closed with “in Jesus name.”

A federal district court in May 2015 ruled the commission’s prayers were unconstitutional and ordered commissioners to stop.

But on Monday, a three-judge federal appeals court panel in Richmond, Virginia, overturned it. The 2-1 ruling cites a U.S. Supreme Court decision in a similar New York State case that allowed prayers at a public meeting.

Rowan County Commission chair Greg Edds welcomed the decision.

“We're very pleased with the decision and we think the court properly decided the matter,” Edds said.

Since last year’s ruling, the commission has been using a non-elected official to lead prayers, such as a sheriff's department chaplain. It's not clear if or when commissioners might resume leading prayers themselves.

“Currently our attorneys are working through the decision and we'll know more about it in the coming days,” Edds said.

The ACLU's North Carolina legal director, Chris Brook was disappointed. But he thinks there’s grounds for an appeal, because of differences between the Rowan and New York cases. In Greece, New York, outside clergy delivered prayers reflecting a diversity of religious beliefs.

“In this case, you had government officials themselves, delivering prayers that they wrote and composed, and that reflected only one particular set of religious views. It's a very different factual circumstance.

Brook says the ACLU will appeal to the full Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals within two weeks.

David Boraks previously covered climate change and the environment for WFAE. See more at www.wfae.org/climate-news. He also has covered housing and homelessness, energy and the environment, transportation and business.