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No Playing Favorites with Prayer

Aleksandr Sverdlik,
Program on Freedom of Religion and Belief
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July 25, 2013

“We can’t be defeated, we can’t be destroyed, and we can’t be denied because we are going to live forever with you through the salvation of Jesus Christ.” Usually, these are the words a churchgoer might hear on a Sunday morning. Instead, Robert Voelker was astonished to hear them delivered by an elected official as part of the opening invocation at a meeting of his County Board of Commissioners in Rowan County, North Carolina.

While federal courts have allowed nonsectarian prayer at government meetings, most courts have made clear that prayers specific to one faith violate the Constitution’s religious liberty protections. However, that could change when the U.S. Supreme Court considers this issue again next term in a case stemming from a small town in New York.

Voelker’s experience illustrates why the Supreme Court must continue to enforce the longstanding constitutional rule barring official religious favoritism at governmental meetings. As a non-Christian, Voelker felt pressured to stand and participate in the prayer despite it espousing specific religious beliefs that he does not share. The prayer also left him hesitant to speak out during future Board meetings on behalf of causes he supports and made him feel like a second-class citizen.

When the county refused to abide by the Constitution, the American Civil Liberties Union and the ACLU of North Carolina Legal Foundation filed a lawsuit on behalf of Voelker and two other Rowan County residents. Tuesday, a federal district court affirmed that the official Christian prayers violate the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and barred the County from continuing its practice. The court noted that nearly every board meeting since 2007 has begun with Christian prayer. It further pointed out that the commissioners, who delivered the prayers themselves, routinely gave thanks for the “virgin birth,” the “cross at Calvary,” and “the resurrection,” and asked for wisdom “in the name of the King of Kings, the Lord of Lords, Jesus Christ,” essentially holding mini-sermons rather than innocuous invocations.

The district court recognized that opening government meetings with sectarian prayer alienates citizens who do not share the favored faith and infringes their right to participate fully in their communities and government proceedings. That’s why, when the Supreme Court takes up this issue in the case of Galloway v. Town of Greece this fall, the ACLU will submit a friend-of-the-court brief asking the Court to uphold the Constitution’s guarantee of religious liberty by ensuring that invocations remain free from sectarian preference.

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