Lawsuit filed after meetings opened "in the name of Jesus"
GREENSBORO, NC (WBTV) - The American Civil Liberties Union and ACLU of North Carolina Legal Foundation (ACLU-NCLF) filed a federal lawsuit yesterday on behalf of three Rowan County citizens, demanding that the Rowan County Board of Commissioners stop its unconstitutional practice of opening government meetings with prayers that are specific to one religion.
The trio says the prayers are a violation of their first amendment liberties.
The ACLU filed the lawsuit on behalf of county residents Nancy Lund, Liesa Montag-Siegel and Robert Voelker.
Lund and Montag-Siegel argue that the prayer secludes members of the community from the meetings and felt pressured to participate.
Voelker has spoken publicly at the meetings asking the commissioners to stop the practice, according to the lawsuit.
"...I pray that you give us wisdom and understanding today, I pray that you guide our thoughts and out intents, Lord, even our words that what we say might honor and glorify you and I personally ask your help in that matter. I pray that you bless what we say and do today that it might honor and glorify you and praise you for it in Jesus name, amen," said Rowan County Commission Chairman Jim Sides in opening the March 4 meeting.
The complaint, filed in the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of North Carolina, details how more than 97 percent of board meetings since 2007 have been opened with prayers specific to one religion, Christianity.
"In that instance about 4 out of every 5 prayers favored one set of religious beliefs over others," according to ACLU North Carolina Legal Director Chris Brook. "139 out of 143 favor one set of religious beliefs over others."
The ACLU argues 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.
The ACLU gave the commission until March 5, 2012 to come up with a new course of action.
The Rowan County Commission meetings came under the scrutiny of the American Civil Liberties Union for opening its meetings with sectarian prayer in February of 2012.
"I didn't feel like I was represented, that my beliefs were represented by those prayers and yet in order to be part of the meeting I felt I needed to participate in the whole routine of the prayer," said Nan Lund, a Salisbury resident who is one of three plaintiffs named in the lawsuit. "I'm not going to argue that Christians can't worship in their own way, everybody should be able to worship in their own way in private, the issue is these are government meetings and that by having the commissioners write and deliver these prayers, they are being exclusionary of the people that don't hold the same beliefs that they do."
The commissioners, who deliver the prayers themselves, routinely call on Jesus Christ and refer 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."
"This is about the government composing prayers not whether these individual commissioners in particular can pray according to their dictates," Brook added.
A 2011 ruling by the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals in another ACLU case, Joyner, et al. v. Forsyth County Board of Commissioners, made clear that, if local boards decide to open meetings with invocations, the prayers may not indicate a preference for one faith. After the U.S. Supreme Court declined to review that ruling, more than 20 local governments throughout North Carolina changed their opening invocations in order to comply with the law.
The ACLU says the debate has prompted 15 other local governments to voluntarily change their policies.
Only Rowan County Commissioners are disputing it.
Commissioner Jon Barber says commissioners will go into closed session at their Monday night meeting to discuss their options.
"I don't plan on changing anything I'm doing until I'm forced tom," he said.
The ACLU told WBTV that it had received 4-5 complaints from people who objected to commissioners praying in the name of Jesus.
Commissioner Craig Pierce did not comment directly on the lawsuit but tells WBTV he will remain true to his convictions as an individual and U.S. citizen to express his opinions and beliefs.
The ACLU told the commission it should follow the law that forbids praying sectarian prayer at public meetings. The ACLU said the board certainly could open its meeting in prayer, but not prayer that specified one God or one religion.
The complaint from the ACLU claims more than 97-percent of board meetings since 2007 have been opened with prayers specific to one religion, Christianity.
"I want my local government to be open and welcoming to people of all beliefs," said Nan Lund, a Salisbury resident who is one of three plaintiffs named in the lawsuit. "But when officials begin a public meeting with prayers that are specific to only one religious viewpoint, I feel unwelcome and excluded."
"All citizens of Rowan County deserve to be treated equally by their government, regardless of their personal religious beliefs," said Chris Brook, ACLU-NCLF Legal Director.
"By refusing to obey the law and insisting on opening meetings with prayers that are specific to only one religion, the Rowan County Commissioners have created an environment where citizens of different beliefs are made to feel alienated. In order to make local government more welcoming to citizens of all beliefs, officials must end this unconstitutional practice at once."
The ACLU did say that a lawsuit was a possibility since the organization had successfully filed suit and won a similar case in Forsyth County.
The ACLU says that 2011 ruling, Joyner, et al. v. Forsyth County Board of Commissioners, made clear that, if local boards decide to open meetings with invocations, the prayers may not indicate a preference for one faith.
After the issue was first brought up by the ACLU, the next two Rowan Commissioner meetings were packed with people who wanted to speak in the public comment part of the meeting.
The vast majority spoke in favor of the sectarian prayers. Dozens more people packed buses and came to meetings, praying and singing hymns on the first floor of the county administration building.
The commissioners, with the exception of Raymond Coltrain, said they would continue to open meetings with prayer in the name of Jesus.
Until Tuesday, the issue seemed to have gone away with no resolution.
The suit seeks a judgment declaring the practice of offering sectarian prayers is in violation of the constitution and the constitution of the United States, as well as an injunction to stop the Rowan County Board of Commissioners from offering sectarian prayers.
The suit also asks for "nominal damages of $1," and that Rowan County pay the legal expenses.
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