Full Appeals Court To Decide If Rowan Commission Can Offer Meeting Prayers
A federal appeals court will decide whether it's legal for Rowan County's elected commissioners to lead Christian prayers at meetings. All 15 judges on the U.S. Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals heard arguments in the case Wednesday in Richmond, Virginia.
Rowan County commissioners used to start their meetings with a Christian prayer delivered by one of the elected board members. Four years ago, the American Civil Liberties Union sued the county on behalf of three citizens who objected to the practice.
“The crux of the case is that this impermissibly coerces Rowan County citizens to participate in this prayer practice,” said Chris Brook, legal director of the North Carolina ACLU.
Brook argued the case in Richmond and says the practice violates the constitutional separation of church and state.
In 2015, a lower court agreed, and declared the practice unconstitutional. Then last September, a three-judge panel of the appeals court overturned that ruling, siding with Rowan commissioners.
So the ACLU asked for a review by all 15 of the court’s judges. That's known as an en banc hearing, and it's a rarity. The 15 Fourth Circuit judges hear only a handful of cases every year as a group. The Rowan County prayer case is the only one so far this year to go before the full court.
The case could help clarify a 2014 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that allowed prayers at government meetings.
Brooks argues the Supreme Court ruling involving the town of Greece, N.Y., says it's not OK for elected officials to lead prayer. “The Supreme Court said there are certain prayer practices that are over the line. And they really described what is happening in Rowan County as being over the line,” Brook said.
Also at Wednesday’s hearing was Greg Edds, who chairs the Rowan County Commission. He says the judges challenged both sides in the case "about equally" during the hour and a half session.
It came out in court that many government boards in the Fourth Circuit territory say prayers at their meetings, and Edds said that makes this more than just a case about Rowan County.
“This is an issue that will affect municipalities and counties and possibly states all across the country So this is a national issue,” he said.
The case is being closely watched. More than two dozen states, elected officials and organizations filed briefs on one side of the case or the other.
Edds says both sides agree there's a place for legislative prayer and that it can be sectarian.
“Now the question becomes, what does that look like?” Edds said.
For now, Rowan commissioners use a public safety chaplain to lead pre-meeting prayers. A ruling on whether commissioners can start saying prayers again won’t come until later this year or in early 2018.