Rowan County Commissioners Vote to Appeal Prayer Ruling
SALISBURY, N.C. – The Rowan County Board of Commissioners today voted to appeal a federal court ruling that found their practice of opening public meetings with commissioner-led prayers specific to one religion to be coercive, discriminatory, and in violation of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. The case, Lund et al. v. Rowan County, will be appealed the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit.
“We are disappointed that the commissioners have decided to continue defending this discriminatory and unconstitutional policy,” said Chris Brook, legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of North Carolina Legal Foundation, which filed a lawsuit challenging the commissioners’ practice in 2013 on behalf of three Rowan County residents. “Rowan County residents should be able to attend public meetings without being coerced into participating in a government-sponsored prayer or fearing that they may be discriminated against for having different beliefs than the commissioners. We will continue to make our arguments in court in order to ensure that public meetings in Rowan County strive to be welcoming to all members of the community.”
On May 4, U.S. District Judge James Beaty ruled that the commissioners violated the Constitution when they coerced public participation in prayers that overwhelmingly advanced beliefs specific to one religion. Between 2007 and 2013, more than 97 percent of the prayers delivered by commissioners before public meetings were specific to Christianity.
“When Plaintiffs wish to advocate for local issues in front of the Board, they should not be faced with the choice between staying seated and unobservant, or acquiescing to the prayer practice of the Board,” wrote
U.S. District Judge James Beaty of the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of North Carolina. “The Board’s practice fails to be nondiscriminatory, entangles government with religion, and over time, establishes a pattern of prayers that tends to advance the Christian faith of the elected Commissioners at the expense of any religious affiliation unrepresented by the majority.”
The ACLU-NC Legal Foundation and national ACLU Program on the Freedom of Religion and Belief filed a lawsuit challenging the commissioners’ coercive prayer practice in March 2013 on behalf of Rowan County residents Nan Lund, Robert Voelker, and Liesa Montag-Siegel. In June 2013, the court preliminarily enjoined the County Commissioners from opening their meetings with coercive, sectarian prayer. In his May 4 ruling, Beaty made that injunction permanent, prohibiting the commissioners from returning to their former practice of opening their meetings with a request that the public join them in prayers that advanced one faith.
The ACLU of North Carolina is a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization dedicated to preserving and expanding the guarantees of individual liberty found in the United States and North Carolina Constitutions and related federal and state civil rights laws. With more than 12,000 members and supporters throughout the state and an office located in Raleigh, the organization achieves its mission through advocacy, public education, community outreach, and when necessary, litigation. Visit acluofnc.org for more information.
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