By Angela Wills
A Richmond, Va. Federal appeals court is wrestling with the constitutionality of prayer activity that occurs at local North Carolina council meetings. This is the first time a case of this nature has been dealt with since a similar case was upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2014.
Oral deliberations were presented to a three-judge panel of the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals in the challenge of a North Carolina county commission’s practice of beginning meetings with prayers referencing Christianity.
An attorney for the Rowan County Commission says that the recent Supreme Court decision supports this case and asked the judges not to engage in “difficult line drawing’ between church and state.
A ruling by the Supreme Court has already stated that it is acceptable for local clergy to say primarily Christian prayers in New York town meetings. The issue at hand now is whether or not it matters or projects differently because the prayers in Rowan County are being delivered by the commissioners, and also if their invite to the audience to join them when praying can be viewed as coercive.
The lawyer for the ACLU, Chris Brook, said the commissioners’ language reflects proselytizing, and doesn’t just deliver an open prayer for their own benefit, which the Supreme Court judges have stressed as an intrinsic part of their decision in allowing the prayers in New York.
Brook was accompanied in court Wednesday by two of the three residents who filed suit against the Commission back in 2013. He stated, “They have made plain that the audience of these prayers is not only elected officials, but the Rowan County citizens.”
The commissioners usually asked residents in attendance at the meetings to stand and pray with them and use words such as, “I pray that the citizens of Rowan County will love you, Lord.”
There are two of the three judges, G. Steven Agee and Dennis W. Shedd, who question whether or not the commissioners asking the residents to stand and join in prayer is actually coercion since the residents could remain seated or leave the room during prayer if they choose to do so.
An attorney for the Commission expressed that the case of Rowan County isn’t different from that of the one in New York. She told the judges that the constitutionality of the commission’s prayers shouldn’t be based on whether they are being led by commissioners or by a member of the clergy that are selected by government officials.