The U.S. Court of Appeals in Richmond struck an important blow Friday for those who believe elected officials shouldn’t be able to force their religious beliefs on the public.
In a 10-5 vote, the full 4th Circuit ruled that Rowan County’s almost exclusively Christian prayers before county commissioner meetings violated the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. That is not a strike against Christianity or even one against prayers at government meetings. It is a recognition that there are people of many faiths in America, and it is improper for government to favor one over another.
The court emphasized that details matter in such cases. It’s not as simple as whether prayer at government meetings is OK.
In Rowan’s case, the prayers were delivered by commissioners themselves, and no outside ministers were ever invited. That brought it closer to government pushing religion. And over five years, of 143 prayers, 139 referred to Jesus, Christ or other aspects of Christianity. Four were non-sectarian and zero invoked any other religion. Finally, commissioners pressured the audience to participate, and those who didn’t felt ostracized.
Those who oppose this ruling should ask themselves if they’d be OK with county commissioners making 139 of 143 prayers Islamic.
Going forward, Rowan and all other governmental bodies should, if they are to have prayers at all, ensure they are welcoming to people of all beliefs and promote an atmosphere of tolerance.