Supreme Court won't hear Rowan County's prayer case, county responds

Published: Jun. 28, 2018 at 2:07 PM EDT|Updated: Jun. 28, 2018 at 8:20 PM EDT
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ROWAN COUNTY, NC (WBTV) - The Supreme Court will not hear Rowan County's prayer case, lawyers representing the case announced Thursday.

"The U.S. Supreme Court announced today it will not review a ruling that found the county commissioners of Rowan County, North Carolina, violated the Constitution by coercing members of the public to join in prayers that overwhelmingly advanced beliefs specific to one religion," ACLU said in a release.

The decision means that a lower court ruling striking down the practice will stand, with Rowan County having exhausted all possible appeals, the release explains.

"All people should have the freedom to pray without being censored, just as the Supreme Court has held," said ADF Senior Counsel Brett Harvey.

In July 2017, the Fourth Circuit of the US Court of Appeals ruled that Rowan County's practice of prayer before county commission meetings is unconstitutional.

Rowan Commission Chairman Greg Edds released a statement about the decision Thursday night.

We are profoundly disappointed that the Supreme Court side-stepped this chance to clarify its position on legislator-led prayer. Legislative-led prayer is perfectly legal and happens in committees, boards, commissions, councils, and state legislatures all across America—just not in Rowan County and not in the five states covered by the Fourth Circuit's flawed ruling.

Our case was the perfect chance for the country's highest court to clean up the confusion surrounding the opposing opinions recently handed down by the Fourth and Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals, but the nation still waits.  Meanwhile, until the Supreme Court agrees to settle those differences the five states within the Fourth Circuit are forced to operate with a different set of rules than the other 45 states.

I am grateful that Justice Clarence Thomas and Justice Neil Gorsuch took the time to voice their strong dissent from the Supreme Court's decision to punt on legislative prayer. They also rightly scolded the Fourth Circuit for failing to do its history homework.  If it had, it would have found a rich, historical tradition of legislator-led prayer stretching clear back to our nation's founding.

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.

DOCUMENT: Click here to read the full 108-page ruling

Between 2007 and 2013, more than 97 percent of the prayers delivered by Rowan County commissioners before public meetings were specific to Christianity. ACLU says 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."

Thursday, Political Scientist Dr. Michael Bitzer said he's "not surprised."

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