Oral arguments in Rowan prayer case heard this morning

Published: Jan. 27, 2016 at 12:52 AM EST|Updated: Feb. 26, 2016 at 6:56 PM EST
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ACLU Legal Director Chris Brook, Mike Meno of the ACLU of NC, plaintiffs Robert Voelker and Nan...
ACLU Legal Director Chris Brook, Mike Meno of the ACLU of NC, plaintiffs Robert Voelker and Nan Lund

RICHMOND, VA (WBTV) - Attorneys representing both sides in the Rowan County Commission prayer case made their arguments in the United States Court of Appeals in Richmond, Virginia, Wednesday morning.

The case is the appeal by Rowan County of a federal court ruling that found that commissioners violated the Constitution when they offered public prayers that the federal court said overwhelmingly advanced beliefs specific to one religion.

It was an atmosphere of controlled contentiousness as three judges asked tough questions of attorneys on both sides of the issue. Once the arguments were presented, both sides seem to be satisfied that the judges had done their homework on this issue.

"We're just really excited that we did come up and were able to make time to do this," said Rowan County Commission Chairman Greg Edds, who attended the proceeding along with wife Kim.

"It was very obvious from listening to the judges speak that they had studied the case extensively, they asked fantastic questions, very probing questions.  We're very proud of our representatives from our attorney corps that answered them succinctly, very clearly, and it was a good day for Rowan County."

Attorneys representing the Rowan County appeal argued that sectarian prayers were protected by the Constitution, and that the tradition of such prayers had been around as long as the nation itself.

"I thought it was interesting that one of the judges mentioned Madison and others who authored the Constitution, the First Amendment that we're looking at here actively participated in prayers," said David Gibbs, III, from the National Center For Life And Liberty. "Rowan County is not attempting to coerce or proselytize anyone and I think the records and the facts are fairly clear before the court."

Those representing the ACLU gave examples of prayers that had been offered in the past at Rowan County Commission meetings that they said violated the Constitution by attempting to "proselytize and coerce" listeners into accepting one faith.

"You look at all of the facts from a particular controversy," said Chris Brook, Legal Director for the ACLU of North Carolina. "You look at all of the facts that are happening in Rowan County and what you have in Rowan County is a situation where elected officials call on members of the public in a very intimate setting to pray with them, those prayers are often very particular and reflect specific religious beliefs of the elected officials, and unfortunately those elected officials have on occasion signaled their aversion for non-Christians and religious minorities in the community."

Brook gave an example of a prayer offered by former Rowan County Commissioner Carl Ford in December of 2012 in which Commissioner Ford prayed that the "citizens of Rowan County will love you Lord and put you first..."

Another example was that of former Commissioner Jon Barber who prayed that "we would spread His message among the people we know."

Nan Lund, whose name actually appears in the title of the case, is one of the three Rowan residents being represented by the ACLU of North Carolina.

The trio said the prayers were 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.

"The options you have are to be conspicuous and leave the room which excludes you from the group which is the downside," Voelker said on Wednesday.

Lund and Montag-Siegel argued that the prayer secluded members of the community from the meetings, and pressured non-Christians to participate.

Lund attended the oral arguments and said afterward that she was hopeful that judges would uphold the earlier ruling that found the prayers to be in violation of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to the Constitution.

"They were tough questions, there's no questions about it, and I think we could see the diversity among the judges from the questions that they asked and I can only hope that in the deliberation they can come to a judgment that is going to be satisfying," Lund said.

"The issue of the coercion, I can only speak for myself, but to walk into a public place where I've got my elected officials there, I'm asked to stand and by standing participate in prayer, in a context that I don't support and I don't  believe in, my choice is to either stay seated or to leave the room,or to stand up, none of which seem like good choices, they seem to kind of trivialize what it means to somebody who is in that audience that truly is an audience, they are standing facing the audience, its not direct to the legislators, but the impact of what it means to feel excluded from it, and again, to stay seated or leave the room makes you feel very conspicuous," said Lund.

The judges will now deliberate and eventually issue a ruling.

"They want to lay out a standard that lines up with the US Supreme Court, and most importantly lines up with First Amendment," Gibbs added.

Chief Judge J. Harvie Wilkinson, III, did express some concern about the ways prayers were conducted in Rowan County.

"The prayers are an honorable tradition in this country," Judge Wilkinson said.  "I'm troubled by the combination of legislative prayer and all being of one faith.  Some appear to be exhortations to some in the room to have their lives guided by one faith."

Attorneys for both sides indicated that such a ruling could come within a few days, or up to a year from now.

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