Rowan County files appeal in Christian prayer case

Rowan County commissioners pray at a 2012 meeting.
Rowan County commissioners pray at a 2012 meeting. Observer file photo

Rowan County commissioners have appealed a federal judge’s ruling that their practice of opening meetings with Christian prayers violated the First Amendment.

The battle in Rowan County drew strong reaction around the Charlotte region from both sides of the issue, and mirrored a broader national debate over the intersection of religion and government.

97% of prayers by the Rowan board between 2007-13 were Christian.

The ACLU of North Carolina sued Rowan County in 2013, and challenged the commissioners’ prayer practice on behalf of several residents.

In May, U.S. District Judge James Beaty held that the commissioners violated the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause, which bans government endorsement of a single religion. Between 2007 and 2013, some 97 percent of the board’s prayers were Christian.

Rowan commissioners voted unanimously last month to appeal the case to the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond, Va.

This should have been an easy case to resolve in the county’s favor.

The nonprofit Liberty Institute, which is handling Rowan’s appeal.

Liberty Institute, a Texas nonprofit that says it focuses solely on defending religious liberty, is handling the appeal.

In a May 2014 case involving the town of Greece, N.Y., the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that town boards can start meetings with sectarian prayer delivered by clergy and others of various faiths.

But in the Rowan case, Beaty ruled that the commissioners’ actions fell outside of that ruling. “When all faiths but those of the five elected commissioners are excluded, the policy inherently discriminates and disfavors religious minorities,” Beaty stated.

In its 44-page brief filed Monday, Liberty Institute cited the Greece case, and a 1983 U.S. Supreme Court ruling, in arguing for a reversal of the district court.

“Once the Supreme Court decided Greece, this should have been an easy case to resolve in the county’s favor,” the institute wrote. “The district court’s contrary decision ... does not merely misread Greece but overrules it.”

Chris Brook, the state ACLU’s legal director, said the institute’s arguments are similar to ones made at the district court level and believes they will be just as unsuccessful at the appellate court.

A hearing before the appeals court might take place late this year or early next year.

Rowan County Manager Aaron Church and commissioners Chairman Greg Edds could not be reached for comment.

Edds has said that the county has spent a couple thousand dollars on the case and that the National Center for Life and Liberty is covering most of the appeal expenses, reported WBTV, the Observer’s news partner. The center is a Texas-based nonprofit legal ministry.

Adam Bell: 704-358-5696, @abell