On Friday the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals Ruled 10 to 5 Against the Rowan County Commissioners “Praying in Jesus Name”. What’s Next?

Posted on July 15, 2017



Todd Paris, Staff Writer and Salisbury Attorney

♦ In Richmond Virginia on Friday, 4th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled 10-5 against Rowan County, NC and for the American Civil Liberties Union who were representing non-Christian residents who felt excluded by the prayers in Rowan County Commission meetings that specifically used phrases like “in Jesus name”. The 4th Circuit is the top Federal Court in our area and one step down from the United States Supreme Court (SCOTUS) to which the county may appeal.

“In conjunction with co-counsel, Liberty Institute is representing five elected commissioners from Rowan County, North Carolina, who were sued in 2013 by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) for opening their sessions with an invocation, a practice called “legislative prayer.” After a U.S. district court ruled against the Rowan County commissioners in 2015, Liberty Institute stepped in to appeal the decision before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit. “

https://www.libertyinstitute.org/rowan

The legal fees have been paid for by Christian religious groups which leave the county potentially “on the hook” only for the ACLU’s legal fees. Now the ball is back in the County Commission’s hands to see if they wish to appeal this to “the highest Court in the land.” Here’s the 4th circuit’s opinion and the some excerpts:

http://www.ca4.uscourts.gov/Opinions/Published/151591A.P.pdf

“For years on end, the elected members of the county’s Board of Commissioners composed and delivered pointedly sectarian invocations. They rotated the prayer opportunity amongst themselves; no one else was permitted to offer an invocation. The prayers referenced one and only one faith and veered from time to time into overt proselytization. Before each invocation, attendees were requested to rise and often asked to pray with the commissioners. The prayers served to open meetings of our most basic unit of government and directly preceded the business session of the meeting.”

“The principle at stake here may be a profound one, but it is also simple. The Establishment Clause does not permit a seat of government to wrap itself in a single faith. But here elected officials took up a ministerial function and led the political community in prayers that communicated exclusivity, leaving members of minority faiths unwilling participants or discomforted observers to the sectarian exercises of a religion to which they did not subscribe. The solemn invocation of a single faith in so many meetings over so many years distanced adherents of other faiths from that representative government which affects the lives of all citizens and which Americans of every spiritual persuasion have every right to call their own.” Lund v. Rowan County, No. 15-1591 (4th Cir. 2017)

Although the present Commissioners, Greg Edds, Judy Klusman, Jim Greene, Craig Pierce and Mike Caskey decided proceed to the 4th Circuit, it should be noted that by that time they already had changed the prayer practice to not openly pray themselves, but to use a Christian chaplain, employed by the Rowan County Sheriff’s Office in an attempt to solve the issue of commissioners praying themselves. This was a big issue for the Federal District Court that initially ruled against the county.  Continuing to appeal to support a practice they themselves have already abandoned, may feel odd to some, however they may feel compelled to keep moving forward by their closely held Christian religious beliefs or by the lack of clarity in Lund as to whether their currant practice is constitutional.

The United States Supreme Court (SCOTUS) may refuse to hear the appeal, which usually means they have no desire to overturn the case. It should be noted there is another case that has just been argued before the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals, No. 15-1869, Bormuth v. County of Jackson, that may be decided by the fall. Why is that important? Should the 6th Circuit rule for Jackson County, Michigan it may present a conflict of laws issue on this important freedom of religion vs. establishment of religion issue which makes it much more likely for SCOTUS to hear Lund. I have attached an amicus brief filed by The Becket Fund for Religious Freedom in support of the Defendant and a link to their site.

http://s3.amazonaws.com/becketnewsite/2017-05-08-Becket-Amicus-Brief-in-Bormuth-v.-County-of-Jackson.pdf

http://www.becketlaw.org

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