Federal judge bars prayer "In Jesus name" from commission meetings

Published: Jul. 23, 2013 at 10:59 PM EDT|Updated: Aug. 22, 2013 at 10:59 PM EDT
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ROWAN COUNTY, NC (WBTV) - The U.S. District Court issued a preliminary injunction Tuesday in Lund, et al. v. Rowan County, ordering the Rowan County Board of Commissioners to immediately cease its practice of opening government meetings with prayers specific to one religion.

In its ruling, the Court prohibited the County from "knowingly and/or intentionally delivering or allowing to be delivered sectarian prayers" at official Board meetings.

The injunction comes four months after the American Civil Liberties Union and ACLU of North Carolina Legal Foundation filed a lawsuit on behalf of three Rowan County residents demanding that the Commissioners stop opening government meetings with prayers that are specific to one religion.

"Well I would just simply say that I think that the judge's decision to issue an injunction to stop the prayers would indicate that he thinks that the case has merit," Robert Voelker told WBTV.

Voelker is one of the three individuals who brought the suit against the county.

"And as it moves forward it has sufficient merit that he thinks the prayers shouldn't continue."

Another person involved in the suit, Nan Lund, told WBTV she was excited about the judge's ruling.

"I feel that the judge made a decision that shows that everybody in Rowan County should be treated equally."

She hopes this may be the end of the issue.

"We are very pleased that the court reaffirmed one of the most basic principles of religious liberty – that all members of the community should be treated and welcomed equally by their government, regardless of their personal religious beliefs," said Chris Brook, Legal Director for the ACLU of North Carolina Legal Foundation, who is representing the plaintiffs.

The original complaint details how more than 97 percent of board meetings since 2007 have been opened with prayers specific to Christianity.

WBTV contacted each commissioner on Tuesday night.  Commissioner Chad Mitchell replied through email that he would not comment based on the advice of the county attorney.

Commissioner Craig Pierce echoed Mitchell's statement, but did say that commissioners would not violate a court order.

"Naturally we anticipated the injunction," Pierce told WBTV.  "We were told by our attorneys that it would come.  This is just another example of the ACLU trying to take away the rights of the American citizen."

"It's not about prayer as much as a first amendment right, I don't give up my rights because I'm sitting in a chair conducting county business.  I'm not casting any opinion for the rest of the commission, or other members of the board, but for me it's all about first amendment rights."

Anticipating the injunction, commissioners did pass a resolution weeks ago that would allow for a chaplain to lead in prayer if commissioners were forced to stop praying a sectarian prayer.

Pierce told WBTV that the board could use a chaplain, or find another way to continue to pray that is not in violation of the judge's order.

"I think that's a wise decision on their part," Voelker said. "I think that they have to respond in a way that they think complies with the judge's ruling and whether they have to get his approval to do that I don't know, but I think it's wise that they are attempting to comply with it."

The ACLU said the commissioners, who delivered the prayers themselves, routinely called on Jesus Christ and referred 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."

"When the government plays favorites with religion, it sends a message to those who follow non-preferred faiths that they are second-class citizens," said Heather L. Weaver, Senior Staff Attorney for the ACLU Program on Freedom of Religion and Belief.

"Today's decision puts Rowan County residents of every faith back on equal footing before the Board of Commissioners."

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