ROWAN COUNTY, NC (WBTV) - Rowan County commissioners have agreed to pay $285,000 in the unsuccessful effort to challenge an American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) lawsuit over the prayer practices in county commission meetings.
Commissioners voted unanimously Monday during the meeting to pay the money to the ACLU out of a legal fund. The ACLU represented three Rowan County residents who brought the issue forward.
“It’s not a religious thing for me, it was more about freedom of speech, I just don’t think if you’re going to support and speak for the public that you should be told what you can and cannot say," said commissioner Craig Pierce. "$285,000, there are 140,000 citizens in Rowan County, that’s $2 per citizen to figure this out and that’s a whole lot cheaper than what we spent on a lot of the things that didn’t pan out.”
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.
Between 2007 and 2013, more than 97 percent of the prayers delivered by Rowan County commissioners before public meetings were specific to Christianity. The ACLU said the commissioners instructed those present to stand and join in the prayer, leading many residents to feel coerced and pressured into doing so.
In March 2017, the case was argued before the full panel of fifteen judges in Richmond, VA.
In January 2016, the case was heard by a panel of three judges. In September 2016, 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.
A month later, in October, the appeals court agreed to vacate and reconsider a divided 2-1 decision in September that found the practice constitutional.
In May 2015, a federal district court ruled Rowan's practice was unconstitutional and ordered the commissioners to cease practicing of opening meetings with "coercive" prayer, and requested that the public join them in prayers that advanced one faith.
“This case has always been about making Rowan County more welcoming to people of all beliefs, and we are so glad that the Supreme Court has let this ruling stand,” said Nan Lund, the lead plaintiff in the case, Lund et al. v. Rowan County. “Everyone should be able to attend public meetings and raise concerns with government officials without having to violate or be judged by their religious beliefs.”
In June, 2018, the United States Supreme Court announced it would not hear an appeal of the case filed by attorneys representing Rowan County.