Dr. Bitzer: Supreme Court likely to hear Rowan prayer case

SALISBURY, NC (WBTV) - Dr, Michael Bitzer, a political scientist and Provost at Catawba College in Salisbury, says that he believes that the United States Supreme Court will likely want to take the case involving Rowan County and prayers at county commission meetings.

"I think the Supreme Court is more likely than not because we have what's called a split circuit decision," Dr. Bitzer told WBTV.  "The Fourth Circuit has ruled one way on this prayer case, another circuit, the Sixth Circuit, has ruled in the exact opposite way and what the Supreme Court wants to ensure is that there is equal protection of the law across the land."

On Monday night commissioners in Rowan County voted 5-0 to appeal the ruling of the Fourth Circuit that found the practice unconstitutional.  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 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.

"This would be an important milestone case in the role of religion in the public sector.," Dr. Bitzer added. "I think this one is getting very specific in terms of the role of elected officials, legislators, members of county commissions, members of city councils, when they can use their freedom to express and exercise religion based on the public sector."

Earlier this month in a similar case, the Sixth Circuit ruled (9-6) in favor of Jackson County, Michigan, upholding the county commission's prayer practice against a claim that it unlawfully endorses religion under the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

If the appeal is accepted by the high court, a decision is possible as early as next summer, according to Dr. Bitzer.

"They will go ahead, submit the paperwork and ask for what is called a writ of certiorari and that's basically a request by the Supreme Court to review this lower court's ruling.  You'll also get something from the 6th Circuit so they will have basically two cases with two different interpretations of the law and that's generally when the court, the high court will step in and say we will resolve this controversy between the two circuits," Bitzer said.

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