The Rowan County Commission decided Monday in a 5-0 vote they will take the ongoing lawsuit over sectarian prayer during commission meetings to the United States Supreme Court.
A special meeting was called for commissioners to decide whether to appeal the most recent court ruling to the Supreme Court.
In July, the Fourth Circuit of the U.S. Court of Appeals ruled that Rowan County's practice of prayer before county commission meetings is unconstitutional.
The court ruled 10-5 that the practice “violated the Constitution when they opened public meetings by coercing public participation in prayers that overwhelmingly advanced beliefs specific to one religion. The decision upheld a lower court ruling.”
“This ruling is a great victory for the rights of all residents to participate in their local government without fearing discrimination or being forced to join in prayers that go against their beliefs,” said ACLU of North Carolina Legal Director Chris Brook, who argued the case, after that ruling. “We are very pleased that the full Fourth Circuit has upheld a bedrock principle of the First Amendment: that government should not be in the business of promoting one set of religious beliefs over others.”
The national ACLU Program on Freedom of Religion and Belief and the ACLU of North Carolina filed a lawsuit challenging the commissioners’ coercive prayer practice in March 2013 on behalf of three Rowan residents.
On Monday, the ACLU released another statement after the commissioners’ vote: “The bottom line is that local government meetings should be welcoming to all community members, regardless of their religious beliefs. The issues in this case have already been thoroughly reviewed by two federal courts, which agreed that Rowan County's former practice was unconstitutional. We believe those rulings should be the final word in this case, but no matter what, we will continue defending the rights of our clients and all Rowan County residents to be free from religious coercion by government officials.”
Between 2007 and 2013, more than 97 percent of the prayers delivered by Rowan County commissioners before public meetings were specific to one religion, Christianity.
The commissioners had instructed those present to stand and join in the prayer, leading many residents to feel coerced and pressured into doing so.
In January 2016, the case was heard by a panel of three judges. In September, that panel reversed the ruling that Rowan County Commissioners violated the Constitution when they held prayers before public meetings that were specific to one religion.
In October, the appeals court agreed to vacate and reconsider a divided 2-1 decision in September that found the practice constitutional.
Lawyers for the county replied that those prayers still neither “threaten damnation nor preach conversion,” and pointed to a tradition of legislative prayers gong back to a time prior to the founding of the republic.
David Gibbs of the National Center for Life and Liberty heads the organization providing the legal team for Rowan County.
“I think there was a lot of room for agreement,” Gibbs said. “That number one, legislative prayers are historic, they’re protected, they've gone on since the founding of our country. Both sides conceded that legislators can pray. The question really focused down on how do we determine where the line is, and I think everyone agrees that there is a line where something is constitutional or it's unconstitutional.”
In the meeting on Monday,a public-comment period saw more than 20 speakers who were limited to three minutes each.
Commissioners Craig Pierce and Mike Caskey both said that they supported the appeal.
“To us, it hasn’t been settled so it’s time we have a consistent read on what we need to do,” Pierce said before Monday's meeting. “This is not just going to affect Rowan County, it’s going to affect every meeting that’s held in the United States that involves government officials.”
According to Pierce, their attorneys said if the case did go to the Supreme Court and the county loses, then they would likely have to pay the ACLU nearly $300,000. Since there are nearly 140,000 citizens in Rowan County, that would amount to about $2.15 per taxpayer.
“We don’t have any people who are not Christian on the commission, but if we did and they wanted to pray of their religion I’m fine with that,” Pierce said.