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Commissioners file appeal in case of prayers 'in Jesus name'

Published: Jul. 28, 2015 at 5:50 PM EDT|Updated: Aug. 27, 2015 at 5:50 PM EDT
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ROWAN COUNTY, NC (WBTV) - Rowan County has officially appealed a federal court ruling that said commissioners must stop opening public meetings with prayer specific to one religion.

The appeal was filed Monday, eight weeks after the commission unanimously voted to appeal a federal judge's ruling in early May. That ruling said Rowan County commissioners must stop opening their meetings with prayers that almost always referred to Christianity.

U.S. District Judge James Beaty Jr. ruled that the way the commissioners opened meetings with prayers violated the U.S. Constitution's prohibition against mixing church and state. Rowan County commissioners themselves delivered prayers before their meetings.

At the time, commissioners said making the appeal was the right thing to do.

Ahead of the vote to appeal the decision, commissioners met for three hours behind closed doors to discuss the issue and the available options.

Commission Chair Greg Edds told WBTV that commissioners questioned their attorney about fighting the case. Their questions were answered and a conclusion was made.

"We believe that we have a better than average chance," Edds said. "It needs to be heard."

Proponents of the appeal showed up to the meeting in early June and held signs reading they would vote against commissioners who voted against the appeal.

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) quickly fired back after the decision was handed down. The organization calls the commissioners' vote discriminatory, unconstitutional and vows to fight this case.

"Rowan County residents should be able to attend public meetings without being coerced into participating in a government sponsored prayer," ACLU Legal Director for the NC Legal Foundation Chris Brook said. "Or fearing that they may be discriminated against for having different beliefs than the commissioners."

In May, the Supreme Court ruled prayers that open town council meetings do not violate the Constitution even if they routinely stress Christianity. The court said in a 5-4 decision that the content of the prayers is not critical as long as officials make a good-faith effort at inclusion.

The ruling was based on a case in New York.

Commissioners have been embroiled in the legal fight for more than two years after the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) filed a lawsuit for opening meetings with prayer in the name of Jesus in March 2013.

According to the 2013 lawsuit, more than 97 percent of board meetings from 2007 until 2013 were opened with prayers specific to one religion, Christianity.

The lawsuit was filed on behalf of three Rowan County citizens who said the sectarian prayer discriminated against them.

The ACLU argued 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.

"This is not a hostile thing that we're doing," Nan Lund told WBTV in 2013. Lund is one of the three named in the suit.  "We're trying to make it so that the whole community feels more welcomed and is more willing to participate in county government which I think is really important."

In July 2013, a federal judge issued a preliminary injunction in Lund, et al. v. Rowan County, ordering the Rowan County Board of Commissioners to immediately stop 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.

Anticipating the injunction, commissioners pass a resolution several weeks prior allowing a chaplain to lead in prayer if commissioners were forced to stop praying a sectarian prayer. Commissioner have had ministers and others doing the prayer since the move.

In 1983, the court upheld an opening prayer in the Nebraska legislature and said that prayer is part of the nation's fabric, not a violation of the First Amendment. SCOTUS' ruling in May was consistent with the earlier one.

Edds tells WBTV so far the county has spent a couple of thousand of dollars to fight this battle. He says The National Center for Life and Liberty is covering most of appeal expenses.

Copyright 2015 WBTV. The Associated Press contributed to this report. All rights reserved