ROWAN COUNTY, NC (WBTV) - A federal judge has ruled the Rowan County Board of Commissioners violated the Constitution when they held prayers before public meetings that were specific to one religion.
The lawsuit was filed more than two years ago by the American Civil Liberties Union and ACLU of North Carolina Legal Foundation (ACLU-NCLF). The filed the lawsuit on behalf of residents Nancy Lund, Liesa Montag-Siegel and Robert Voelker.
The trio said the prayers were a violation of their first amendment liberties.
The complaint, filed in the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of North Carolina, details how more than 97 percent of board meetings between 2007 and 2013 were opened with prayers specific to one religion, Christianity.
In June 2013, the court asked the commissioners to stop opening their meetings with sectarian prayer. Today's ruling made that injunction permanent, prohibiting commissioners from returning to their former practice of opening their meetings with prayer "in the name of Jesus."
The commissioners, who at the time delivered the prayers themselves, routinely called on Jesus Christ and refer to other sectarian beliefs during invocations. Opening invocations have declared that "there is only one way to salvation, and that is Jesus Christ," as well as given thanks for the "virgin birth," the "cross at Calvary," and "the resurrection."
The ACLU argued in the lawsuit 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.
A 2011 ruling by the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals in another ACLU case, Joyner, et al. v. Forsyth County Board of Commissioners, made clear that, if local boards decide to open meetings with invocations, the prayers may not indicate a preference for one faith.
After the U.S. Supreme Court declined to review that ruling, more than 20 local governments throughout North Carolina changed their opening invocations in order to comply with the law.
"I'm very glad that the court agrees that Rowan County and other local governments should work to be welcoming to residents of all beliefs, and not simply those who share the majority view," said Nan Lund, the lead plaintiff in the case. "Rowan County is home to people of many different beliefs, and I think our officials should embrace that diversity and make public meetings as inclusive as possible."
"Residents attending public meetings should not have to choose between participating in a religious exercise led by a government official and singling themselves out as a religious minority." said Chris Brook, legal director for the ACLU of North Carolina Legal Foundation. "The message of today's decision is clear: Rowan County's prayer practice unconstitutionally discriminated against many of its residents, alienating many who simply wanted to play a role in local decision-making."
"There are those who will agree with me and those who don't," former commissioner Jon Barber wrote on Facebook after the federal ruling. "This legal ruling will not deter me from my Savior and Lord Jesus Christ."
The Rowan County Commission meetings came under the scrutiny of the American Civil Liberties Union for opening its meetings with sectarian prayer in February of 2012.