Appeals Court Throws Out Rowan County Prayer Ruling, Orders Rehearing
A federal appeals court in Richmond, Va., has agreed to re-hear a case on whether it's legal for Rowan County commissioners to deliver Christian prayers before their meetings. That invalidates a September ruling by a three-judge panel of the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals that the practice was constitutional.
The American Civil Liberties Union sued the county three years ago on behalf of three citizens who objected to commissioner-led prayers. They complained the prayers were “coercive” and often closed with “in Jesus name.”
In their September ruling, two of the three judges cited a U.S. Supreme Court ruling in a New York case (Town of Greece v. Galloway) that allowed prayers at a public meeting. But Judge J. Harvie Wilkinson dissented, saying the Rowan and New York cases are (quote) "a conceptual world apart."
“The message actually delivered in this case was not one of welcome but of exclusion,” Wilkinson wrote in the dissent.
In the Greece, N.Y., case, local elected officials didn’t offer prayers themselves, but invited citizens or local clergy to deliver prayers. That’s a big difference, Wilkinson said.
Wilkinson’s argument was enough to convince a majority of the Fourth Circuit’s 15 judges to re-hear the case.
“He (Wilkinson) was troubled by the linkage between the government officials making it look like public pronouncements, and the commissioners were embracing as public figures those sentiments expressed. And nearly all of them were Christian prayers,” University of Richmond law professor Carl Tobias said.
Monday's decision means the case will be heard by the full Fourth Circuit Appeals Court, not just a panel of three judges.
Tobias said he thinks the court agreed to re-hear the case because it could set a precedent, and eventually go to the Supreme Court.
“I think this is just a judgment that this is an important, and probably the most important case in the appellate courts after Town of Greece, which was controversial and splintered. And so it's being closely watched,” he said.
The ACLU said Tuesday the September ruling was "out of step" with religious liberties protections in the First Amendment.
"When people attend meetings of their local government, they should not have to worry about being coerced to participate in a sectarian prayer that goes against their beliefs and being discriminated against by local officials when they don't," Chris Brook, legal director for the ACLU of North Carolina, said in a statement.
The full Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals is expected to hear the case in January.