SALISBURY, NC (WBTV) - All 15 judges on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit will hear oral arguments on Wednesday in the case involving the ACLU and three Rowan County residents who objected to the type of prayers being offered during meetings of the Rowan County Board of Commissioners.
In January of last year the case was heard by a panel of three judges. In September, that panel reversed the ruling that Rowan County Commissioners violated the Constitution when they held prayers before public meetings that were specific to one religion.
The United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit released a 73-page opinion which showed the three-judge panel ruled two to one in favor the Rowan County Commission.
"We are very pleased with the decision and think the court properly decided the matter," Rowan County Commission Chairman Greg Edds said at that time.
In October, the appeals court agreed to vacate and reconsider a divided 2-1 decision in September that found the practice constitutional.
The ACLU of North Carolina and national ACLU Program on Freedom of Religion and Belief filed the original lawsuit challenging the commissioners' "coercive prayer practice" in March 2013 on behalf of Rowan County residents Nan Lund, Robert Voelker, and Liesa Montag-Siegel.
The trio said the prayers were a violation of their first amendment liberties.
The complaint detailed how more than 97 percent of board meetings between 2007 and 2013 were opened with prayers specific to one religion, Christianity.
"Our clients simply want to ensure that when they and others attend local government meetings, they will not have to worry about being coerced into participating in a sectarian prayer that goes against their beliefs and being discriminated against by local officials when they don't," said ACLU of North Carolina Legal Director Chris Brook. "We believe that the First Amendment is on our side, and we look forward to making our argument to the full appeals court."
In May 2015, a federal district court ruled the practice unconstitutional and ordered the commissioners to cease opening their meetings with sectarian prayer and a request that the public join them in prayers that advanced one faith.
The commissioners, who at the time delivered the prayers themselves, routinely called on Jesus Christ and referred 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.