Rowan County officially asks Supreme Court to take prayer case

Rowan County officially asks Supreme Court to take prayer case

SALISBURY, NC (WBTV) - On Thursday the attorneys representing Rowan County in the ongoing public prayer lawsuit officially filed paperwork for the United States Supreme Court to take the case.

Rowan County is asking the high court "to uphold its policy pertaining to prayer before public meetings and to clear up conflicting rulings on legislator-led prayer in lower courts," according to a news release from the Alliance Defending Freedom.

Alliance Defending Freedom attorneys are co-counsel in the case and were also the attorneys behind the 2014 U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Town of Greece v. Galloway that upheld prayer at public meetings, which both a panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit in Rowan County v. Lund, and a recent decision by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit in a different case cited as critical precedent for their decisions in favor of legislator-led prayer policies. according to the release.

The full 4th Circuit, however, later reversed the 4th Circuit panel's decision, creating a split between the circuits.

"All Americans, including public servants, should have the freedom to pray without being censored, just as the Supreme Court has held," said ADF Senior Counsel Brett Harvey. "The First Amendment affirms the liberty of Americans to pray according to their consciences before public meetings. For that reason, a 4th Circuit panel last year rightly upheld Rowan County's clearly constitutional prayer policy. Because the full 4th Circuit should have ruled similarly, we are asking the Supreme Court to uphold the county's policy."

"Like numerous federal and state legislatures since the Founding, Rowan County's Board of Commissioners precedes its official business with a short legislative prayer…," the petition filed with the Supreme Court states. "The Commissioners—as some of their counterparts have done for centuries—deliver legislative prayers themselves as a way of meeting their 'spiritual needs [as] lawmakers,' and 'reflect[ing] the values they hold as private citizens….' As this Court held in Town of Greece, 'prayer practices [that] fit within the tradition long followed in Congress and the state legislatures' necessarily comport with the Establishment Clause."

The national ACLU Program on Freedom of Religion and Belief and the ACLU of North Carolina filed a lawsuit challenging the commissioners' prayer practice in March 2013 on behalf of three Rowan County residents.

"The bottom line is that local government meetings should be welcoming to all community members, regardless of their religious beliefs," said Chris Brook of the ACLU of North Carolina. The issues in this case have already been thoroughly reviewed by two federal courts, which agreed that Rowan County's former practice was unconstitutional. We believe those rulings should be the final word in this case, but no matter what, we will continue defending the rights of our clients and all Rowan County residents to be free from religious coercion by government officials."

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."

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

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