The Fourth Circuit of the US Court of Appeals has ruled that Rowan County's practice of prayer before county commission meetings is unconstitutional.
A press release provided by the ACLU of North Carolina says that the court ruled 10-5 that the practice "violated the Constitution when they opened public meetings by coercing public participation in prayers that overwhelmingly advanced beliefs specific to one religion. The decision upheld a lower court ruling."
"This ruling is a great victory for the rights of all residents to participate in their local government without fearing discrimination or being forced to join in prayers that go against their beliefs," said ACLU of North Carolina Legal Director Chris Brook, who argued the case. "We are very pleased that the full Fourth Circuit has upheld a bedrock principle of the First Amendment: that government should not be in the business of promoting one set of religious beliefs over others."
The national ACLU Program on Freedom of Religion and Belief and the ACLU of North Carolina filed a lawsuit challenging the commissioners' coercive prayer practice in March 2013 on behalf of three Rowan County residents.
Rowan County Commission Chair Greg Edds responded, saying the commission was weighing its options.
"We're waiting for information on the 108-page decision," Edds said. "We'll review the facts with our attorneys and decide what our options and next steps will be."
"All we've ever wanted is for Rowan County to be a welcoming place for everyone, no matter their religious beliefs, and I am so glad that the court agrees that the Constitution is on our side," said Nan Lund, the lead plaintiff in the case. "No one in this community should fear being forced by government officials to participate in a prayer, or fear being discriminated against because they didn't participate in a prayer before a meeting for all the public."
Between 2007 and 2013, more than 97 percent of the prayers delivered by Rowan County commissioners before public meetings were specific to one religion, Christianity. The commissioners had instructed those present to stand and join in the prayer, leading many residents to feel coerced and pressured into doing so.
In March, the case was argued before the full panel of fifteen judges in Richmond, VA., in March of this year.
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.
In October, the appeals court agreed to vacate and reconsider a divided 2-1 decision in September that found the practice constitutional.
At the en banc hearing in March, as Allyson Ho, a Texas based attorney with the National Center for Life and Liberty representing Rowan County, began her argument, she was quickly interrupted by a judge who pointed out that in the time period being discussed for this issue, prayers offered by Rowan County commissioners were Christian in nature and direction in 139 out of 143 meetings.
"Don't those in the audience come to perceive Christianity as the prevailing faith," the judge asked. "How can there be any other impression?"
One judge also pointed out specific examples of what she said were prayers that were proselytizing, or intended to convert someone to the Christian faith.
The judge cited a prayer by former commissioner Jon Barber in which he said the "one way to salvation is Jesus Christ." A prayer by former commissioner Carl Ford was also mentioned, with the judge saying that Ford said that he would "pray that citizens of Rowan County put Jesus Christ first."
Lawyers for the county replied that those prayers still neither "threaten damnation nor preach conversion," and pointed to a tradition of legislative prayers gong back to a time prior to the founding of the republic.
David Gibbs of the National Center for Life and Liberty heads the organization providing the legal team for Rowan County.
"I think there was a lot of room for agreement," Gibbs said following the hearing. "That number one, legislative prayers are historic, they're protected, they've gone on since the founding of our country. Both sides conceded that legislators can pray. The question really focused down on how do we determine where the line is, and I think everyone agrees that there is a line where something is constitutional or it's unconstitutional."
One judge pointed said that by addressing the content of the prayer, there was the danger of "being the police for the prayers that private persons give. We can't get into content."
"I felt like the arguments that were discussed this time with the wider panel of judges, really brought out issues that were in depth," Lund said following the March hearing, "The judges had clearly done a lot of their homework and were prepared to get into the details that needed to be discussed."
Asked why it was important to continue this fight that began more than five years ago, Voelker said it was a matter of how he was made to feel at a commission meeting.
"My opinion is that society is becoming more religiously pluralistic, including people who don't belong to any religion," Voelker said. "I think we as a society and we particularly in Rowan County have to be people who are welcoming to all people to participate in public affairs, and that includes the Rowan County commissioner meetings."
Both sides hesitated to give a definitive answer when asked if they thought this case could end up before the Supreme Court. At least one judge in the hearing pointed out that he believed that this case was without precedent in the United States.
Chris Scalia, who is an attorney with First Liberty which is the group that is serving as co-counsel for Rowan County in this case, released this statement Friday: