The American Civil Liberties Unions year-long battle with Rowan County commissioners over the issue of Christian prayer at the beginning of county meetings could be headed to federal court.
The ACLU, which asked Rowan commissioners in February 2012 to stop opening their meetings with Christian prayer, now has sued the county in U.S. District Court.
The ACLU said the suit was filed on behalf of Rowan County residents Nancy Lund, Liesa Montag-Siegel and Robert Voelker, who say the commissioners practice of praying before meetings violates their constitutional rights under the First and Fourteenth Amendments.
I want my local government to be open and welcoming to people of all beliefs, said Lund, of Salisbury. But when officials begin a public meeting with prayers that are specific to only one religious viewpoint, I feel unwelcome and excluded.
County commissioners have not publicly commented on the suit, although board chair Jim Sides, a strong supporter of prayer at the meetings, told the Salisbury Post on Tuesday that his position has not changed.
The suit alleges that 97 percent of the Rowan County Board of Commissioners meetings over the past five years have been opened with prayer.
The board chairman asks residents in attendance to stand during these invocations, the suit alleges, which made the plaintiffs feel compelled to participate or secluded.
The ACLU said the commissioners prayers routinely mention Jesus Christ, and it said the invocations have declared there is only one way to salvation, and that is Jesus Christ, as well as giving thanks for the cross at Calvary and the virgin birth.
All citizens of Rowan County deserve to be treated equally by their government, regardless of their personal religious beliefs, said Chris Brook, legal director for the ACLU in North Carolina. He said the prayers have created an environment where citizens of different beliefs are made to feel alienated.
The ACLU sent a letter to Rowan County commissioners in February 2012, asking the board to stop the prayers. At the time, the ACLU said it had received five complaints from residents.
An overflow crowd attended the next commissioners meeting, on March 5, 2012, with most of the public supporting county commissioners. A number of residents spoke at the meeting, saying the prayers were a constitutional right.
Sides, the county commissioner, reportedly said he would be willing to go to jail in defense of opening the meeting with prayers.
I will continue to pray in JESUS name I volunteer to be the first to go to jail for this cause Sides wrote in an email, according to the ACLUs suit.
Those comments have promoted divisiveness with the county, the suit said.
In the lawsuit, the ACLU highlighted a meeting last March when a Rowan County resident expressed opposition to the boards prayers, only to have other audience members jeer her.
The suit asks the court to declare the commissioners practice of invoking sectarian prayer at public meetings a violation of the constitution and to file an injunction against Rowan County commissioners to keep them from praying at meetings.
It also asks for damages of $1 and for Rowan County to pay court costs, including attorneys fees.
The ACLU says a federal court decision in the 2011 case, Joyner v. Forsyth County Board of Commissioners, has given a clear directive to government agencies that any invocations at the beginning of meetings should not show a preference for one faith.
The U.S. Supreme Court declined to review that ruling, and the ACLU says more than 20 local governments in North Carolina changed their opening invocations to comply with the law.
News of the ACLUs suit has triggered strong feelings on social media during the past 24 hours.
One supporter of the prayers wrote on The Observers home page, What a great privilege we have in prayer.
Another wrote, Im about as non-religious as they come, but things like this ... are about as petty as one can possibly get.
Supporters of the ACLUs suit also were well-represented. One wrote of the Rowan commissioners, Do they think they get to pick and choose what laws they follow, and only follow the laws they agree with?
Staff writer Steve Lyttle contributed.
Steele: 704-358-5067 on Twitter: @steelecs
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