Should local officials be able to start their meetings with prayers that endorse a particular faith? North Carolina State Rep. Michele Presnell thinks so, with one tiny caveat: the faith endorsed must be her own. When asked by one of her constituents whether she would be comfortable with a prayer to Allah before a public meeting, Presnell responded, "No, I do not condone terrorism."
Despite the disturbing anti-Islamic bigotry in her statement, this illustrates the problem with these religion-specific prayers: someone is always going to be excluded or offended by them, and they can't possibly account for everyone's beliefs.
No one should be made to feel like a second-class citizen by his or her own local government, but for the past six years the Rowan County Board of Commissioners have sidelined and excluded Americans of other faiths through the systematic use of prayers specific to only one religion – Christianity.
As if that weren't enough of a reason to stop or change the prayers, the practice is blatantly unconstitutional. The government generally can't sponsor prayer at all, but the Supreme Court has carved out a narrow exception to this rule that allows legislative bodies, like a county board, to open meetings with invocations, so long as they do not promote one faith over others.
That's why the American Civil Liberties Union and the ACLU of North Carolina filed a federal lawsuit challenging Rowan County's practice of opening its Board of Commissioners meetings with sectarian prayers. The facts are clear: more than 97 percent of board meetings since 2007 have been opened with explicitly Christian prayers delivered by the commissioners themselves. The prayers regularly call on Jesus and even incorporate proselytizing messages like "there is only one way to salvation, and that is Jesus Christ." The ACLU brought the lawsuit on behalf of three local citizens who do not share the religious beliefs of the county commissioners and felt excluded by the prayers when attending meetings.
This lawsuit should have served as a wake-up call, but instead local and state officials came up with a novel way to work around this legal hurdle: Rowan County Reps. Harry Warren and Carl Ford filed House Resolution 494, which asserts that North Carolina simply need not follow the U.S. Constitution or federal court rulings that prohibit the establishment of a state religion.
Anyone who has taken a high-school civics class knows, of course, that the U.S. Constitution is the supreme law of the land and states cannot just declare that it does not apply to them. But perhaps Warren, Ford, and the bill's other sponsors (like Presnell) missed class that day. Other legislators, however, realized how ridiculous the resolution was, and it is now clear that it will never come to a vote.
So North Carolina won't be establishing an official state religion – that's the good news. The bad news is that this type of exclusionary prayer practice is still alive and well in 2013, and elected officials like Presnell are still spouting ignorant bigotry. We at the ACLU are hopeful that one day lawsuits won't be needed to convince local governments to treat all their citizens with the same amount of respect, regardless of their faith.