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Rowan County Asks U.S. Supreme Court To Review Prayer Policy

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

Lawyers for Rowan County on Thursday formally asked the U.S. Supreme Court to decide whether it's legal for commissioners to lead prayer before their meetings.

The county is appealing a July ruling by the full 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond, in a case known as Lund v. Rowan County.  In that 10-5 decision, the court ruled that the practice of commissioner-led Christian prayers violated the 1st Amendment separation of church and state.

For years, commissioners led prayers themselves, and invited citizens to join. It was almost always an overtly Christian prayer - about 97 percent of the time, according to the 2013 lawsuit that challenged the practice.  

Three residents sued the county, with the help of the American Civil Liberties Union. They argued that the policy was coercive, pressuring residents to join in or stand during the prayer so they wouldn't stand out as different in front of elected officials who might later vote on an issue affecting them, such as a rezoning.

After the residents won their case at the appeals court in July, Chris Brook of the American Civil Liberties Union of North Carolina told WFAE: “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. I think that it is going to provide useful guidance for local governments."  

For the past two years as the case has made its way through the courts, the commission has invited a non-elected person to lead prayers, such as a public safety chaplain.

The county is represented by lawyers from three nonprofit legal groups -  Alliance Defending Freedom, National Center for Life and Liberty, and The Liberty Institute. All three have been arguing in federal courts to allow public-meeting prayer.


It's not clear whether the Supreme Court will agree to hear the case. Judges will review the petition and decide if there are constitutional issues.   

The county's attorneys believe there is. They say the Richmond appeals court decision in the Rowan County case conflicts with a September decision at the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals in Cincinnati.In that case, the appeals court ruledthat it was legal for the elected board in Jackson County, Mich., to start meetings with commissioner-led prayers.  

The differing rulings in two separate circuits could be one reason for the court to take the case, according to experts. In both the Michigan case, and in lower court rulings in the Rowan case, judges relied on a 2014 Supreme Court ruling in a case involving elected leaders in Greece, N.Y., as a precedent for allowing legislator-led prayer.

“The Supreme Court’s guidance is sorely needed here so that the lower courts properly apply its decision in Town of Greece v. Galloway,” Brett Harvey, senior counsel of the Alliance Defending Freedom, said in a press release Thursday. “That decision very clearly supports the principles at issue in this case, as the 6th Circuit has recognized. This case gives the high court the opportunity to resolve the conflict between the 4th and 6th circuits.”

Rowan commissionersvoted unanimously last month to go ahead with the Supreme Court petition. During that meeting, county commission chair Greg Edds argued that the high court needed to clarify the law.

“The outcome of our case will affect the United States House, the U.S. Senate, state legislatures, county commissions, city councils, school boards and countless other elected bodies all across our country. We are not alone,” Edds said.


Oct. 12, 2017, Alliance Defending Freedom website, "NC county asks US Supreme Court to reaffirm freedom to pray before public meetings"

Oct.12, 2017, FirstLiberty.org, "First Liberty Asks U.S. Supreme Court to Review Decision on Legislative Prayers."

Sept. 26, 2017, WFAE.org, "Rowan Commission Plans Supreme Court Appeal of Prayer Ruling"

July 14, 2017, WFAE.org, "Appeals Court Rules Rowan County Prayer Practice Unconstitutional."

March 23, 2017, WFAE.org, "Q&A: Arguments For, Against Rowan County Meeting Prayers."

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.