Commissioners in Rowan County, North Carolina, have gone to the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals to preserve their tradition of opening meetings with prayer, citing a U.S. Supreme Court decision in a similar case that affirmed the practice.
According to Liberty Institute, the county had opened meetings with an invocation for years. Commissioners, on a rotating basis, could offer a prayer or simply lead a moment of silence. Members of the audience could choose not to participate, if they wished.
But three county residents, represented by the American Civil Liberties Union, sued to halt the practice, and the district court agreed.
The commissioners, however, cite the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1983 Marsh ruling that the Nebraska legislature’s practice of opening sessions with a prayer by a chaplain funded by the state did not violate the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.
Later, in the Greece decision, the Supreme Court extended that basic holding to a local government’s practice of opening meetings with an invocation.
In Rowan County, Nancy Lund, Liesa Montag-Siegel and Robert Voelker sued, claiming they felt excluded because the prayers reflected the commissioners’ beliefs, not theirs.
According to a petition to the appeals court filed by Liberty Institute, the plaintiffs didn’t “complain about legislative prayer generally” nor did they “object to the county’s practice of elected officials delivering the prayers.”
Their motion for a preliminary injunction sought “to restrict the content of the prayers,” Liberty Institute said.
It was while the Rowan County case was pending that the Supreme Court accepted and decided the Greece case.
But the district court didn’t wait for that precedent, ruling that Rowan County must stop “intentionally delivering” sectarian prayers at meetings of its board of commissioners.
In the Greece case, Justice Anthony Kennedy noted in the majority opinion that such prayers are part of the “fabric of our society” and a requirement for a “nonsectarian or ecumenical prayer as s single, fixed standard is not consistent with the tradition of legislative prayer.”
The Supreme Court determined that even though a significant percentage of prayers may be Christian, they are constitutional, because to require a town to recruit minority faith members would be inappropriate.
In cases in which commission members deliver prayers on a voluntary and rotating basis, the invocations are more for the lawmakers themselves than an audience who may happen to hear, the U.S. Supreme Court said.
In the Rowan County case, however, the district court found that the county prayers were improper, because they were delivered by legislators and were “unconstitutionally coercive.”
The district court relied on cases pre-dating the Supreme Court’s ruling to make its decision, Liberty Institute noted.
To the appeals court, Liberty Institute argued, “From the outset, plaintiffs litigated this case as a challenge to the content of the prayers that opened and solemnized the county commission’s meetings – but the Supreme Court entirely foreclosed that challenge … holding that opening town meetings with faith-specific prayers does not violate the Establishment Clause.”
The district court decision, if left alone, Liberty Institute said, would effectively overrule the Supreme Court.
“The county commissioners’ opening prayers are part of the tradition of legislative prayer affirmed in Marsh and Greece, and the district court’s contrary judgment should be reversed,” Liberty’s petition explains. “Any other result requires the banning of prayer proclamations by all elected officials, including mayors, governors and the president of the United States.”
The petition note that every president from George Washington to Barack Obama has invoked “the protection and help of God” in various speeches and writings.
“President George Washington wrote a letter to the governors that included ‘my earnest prayer that God would have you, and the state over which you preside, in his holy protection … that he would most graciously be pleased to dispose us all to do justice, to love mercy and to demean ourselves with that charity.'”
Obama cited the “power of an awesome God” in remarks regarding the Selma march for civil rights.
Liberty said, “If permitted to stand, the district court’s ruling that the practice of rotating an opportunity to deliver opening prayers among elected officials is inherently discriminatory … will have serious, wide-ranging implications.”
Liberty said it “cannot reasonably be questioned that many state and local governments have chosen this practice of engaging in legislative prayer.”