Prayers 'in Jesus name' during council meetings gets boost from - WBTV 3 News, Weather, Sports, and Traffic for Charlotte, NC

Prayers 'in Jesus name' during council meetings gets boost from SCOTUS

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ROWAN COUNTY, NC (WBTV/AP) -

The Supreme Court says prayers that open town council meetings do not violate the Constitution even if they routinely stress Christianity.

The court said in 5-4 decision Monday that the content of the prayers is not critical as long as officials make a good-faith effort at inclusion.

The ruling was based on a case in New York, but could have implications across the nation, including Rowan County.

Monday, the Rowan County Commissioners met and opened the meeting with a prayer that ended with the words, "I ask this in the name of my Lord and Savior, King of Kings, Lord of Lords."

Before the meeting, Chairman Jim Sides explained why they don't use Jesus.

"I'm a Christian the King of Kings, the Lord of Lords is Jesus Christ," said Sides.

A court injunction prevents commissioners from saying Jesus.

"We don't want to do anything that flies in the face of the judge. You don't pick at an open wound. This is still an open wound," said Sides.

County commissioners in Rowan County have been fighting the prayer issue in commission meetings since March 2013 when the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) filed a lawsuit for opening meetings with prayer in the name of Jesus.

"As Neil Armstrong said on July 21st, 1969, 'This is one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.' I am grateful for this victory for the American public," Commission Chairman Jim Side, Jr told WBTV on Monday. "This ruling will have far reaching implications for Christians all across America. God Bless the United States of America."

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of North Carolina says it "strongly disagree" with today's decision by the Supreme Court.

"Today's ruling is a disappointing setback for the rights of citizens of all beliefs to be treated equally by their government," said Jennifer Rudinger, Executive Director.

"Opening government meetings with prayers from a specific religious viewpoint tells citizens with different beliefs that they are not welcome and sends a message that the government endorses certain religious views over others. While we disagree with today's ruling, it is a fact-specific decision making plain there are still limits on the types of prayers that legislative bodies may permit."

According to the 2013 lawsuit, more than 97 percent of board meetings from 2007 until 2013 were opened with prayers specific to one religion, Christianity.

The lawsuit was filed on behalf of three Rowan County citizens who said the sectarian prayer discriminated against them.

Plaintiffs said Monday they were instructed not to comment about the five to four Supreme Court's decision in the Greece, New York case that says prayers that open up lawmakers' meetings do not violate the constitution.

Dr. Michael Bitzer, a political science professor at Catawba College reviewed the Supreme court's decision.

"Adults are attending these city council, county commission meetings can come and go of their own free will," said Bitzer explaining the ruling.

He said the judges in favor said it's about the lawmaker's religious freedom.

"It is much more of an opening that the legislators, the commissioners, are allowed to express their personal beliefs," said Bitzer.

Bitzer says with this Supreme Court decision, it sets precedent for all other cases across the country.  And the facts in the Rowan County case will be compared to the Greece, New York case by judges in the lower federal courts.

The ACLU argued that the practice of Christian prayer violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, as well as the Fourteenth Amendment.

The Establishment Clause says that Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.

The Fourteenth Amendment applies the Bill of Rights to state and local governments and includes the equal protection under the law clause.

"This is not a hostile thing that we're doing," Nan Lund told WBTV in 2013. Lund is one of the three named in the suit.  "We're trying to make it so that the whole community feels more welcomed and is more willing to participate in county government which I think is really important."

The week after the lawsuit was filed, Rowan County Commissioner Craig Pierce opened the commission's March 18 meeting with a prayer using Jesus Christ's name.

"Dear Heavenly Father, be with us tonight as we do the business of the county, give us the intelligence, the wisdom, and the courage to do what's best for all citizens of Rowan County," Pierce said. "I ask this in the name of my personal Lord and savior Jesus Christ, amen."

Chairman Jim Sides, Jr. was among the Commissioners that voted to fight the ACLU lawsuit.
Sides warned that while many organizations have pledged money for the cause, there will likely be a cost to Rowan County taxpayers as the case moved forward.

In July 2013, a federal judge issued a preliminary injunction in Lund, et al. v. Rowan County, ordering the Rowan County Board of Commissioners to immediately stop opening government meetings with prayers specific to one religion.

In its ruling, the Court prohibited the County from "knowingly and/or intentionally delivering or allowing to be delivered sectarian prayers" at official Board meetings.

Anticipating the injunction, commissioners pass a resolution several weeks prior allowing a chaplain to lead in prayer if commissioners were forced to stop praying a sectarian prayer.
Commissioner have had ministers and others doing the prayer since the move.

The Supreme Court took up the case in New York in May 2013.

The 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said the town should have made a greater effort to invite people from other faiths to open its monthly board meetings.

"The facts in today's ruling are very different from those in Rowan County, where government officials have conducted invocations specific to one religion in a manner that is unconstitutional," said Chris Brook, Legal Director of the ACLU of North Carolina Legal Foundation, who is representing the plaintiffs in the Rowan case.

"In the Town of Greece, the prayers were delivered by invited clergy, but in Rowan County, the prayers are composed and delivered by government officials themselves, reinforcing the impression that the government is favoring certain religious views over others and making it impossible for citizens of different beliefs to lead or be included in invocations."

In 1983, the court upheld an opening prayer in the Nebraska legislature and said that prayer is part of the nation's fabric, not a violation of the First Amendment. Monday's ruling was consistent with the earlier one.

"I am pleased that the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the First Amendment right of every American to pray, including at the start of government meetings," South Carolina Attorney General Alan Wilson said on Monday.

"This decision provides much-needed clarity for public officials, and upholds a fundamental principle of the Constitution – which is one's freedom to seek higher counsel when debating policies at the local, state and federal levels of government."

With a very contentious county commission primary race going on Professor Bitzer says this decision may have some impact and influence on people's votes tomorrow.

Copyright 2014 WBTV. The Associated Press contributed to this report. All rights reserved.

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