North Carolina

NC county fought for public prayer, and lost. Now it has to pay the ACLU $285k

The Supreme Court declined to hear the case about prayer at Rowan County, North Carolina commission meetings.
The Supreme Court declined to hear the case about prayer at Rowan County, North Carolina commission meetings. AP

A federal judge found the way the Rowan County Commission prayed before public meetings unconstitutional. An appeals court eventually agreed and the Supreme Court last summer declined to hear the case brought by the American Civil Liberties Union, federal court records show. Now the county will have to pay the ACLU’s legal bills for the five-year legal fight: $285,000.

On Monday, County Commission members voted to pay the bill, the Salisbury Post reports.

“We are obviously very unhappy with this and I think a few of us are, probably, physically sick to our stomach that we have to do this, but this is the risk that we took,” County Commission Chair Greg Edds said, according to the newspaper.

The lawsuit dates back to 2013 when three Rowan County residents sued the county commission over the public prayer at the beginning of each meeting, according to court filings. The commission chair or members give a prayer at the beginning of each meeting, the lawsuit says, and over six years 97 percent of prayers were Christian.

An appeals court sided with the residents, represented by the ACLU, in 2017. “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,” a judge with the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals wrote.

“The prayers are invariably and unmistakably Christian in content,” the judges’ opinion notes, finding the Rowan County Commission’s public prayer unconstitutional.

Over the summer the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear the case, court records show, which upholds the ruling and ended the legal fight.

The Supreme Court did not give an explanation for its decision as is customary in orders. Justice Clarence Thomas joined by Justice Neil Gorsuch dissented from the court’s refusal to take the case,” according to The Hill.

“Thomas said the Fourth Circuit’s decision is ‘both unfaithful to our precedents and ahistorical,’” The Hill wrote.

“This case has always been about making Rowan County more welcoming to people of all beliefs, and we are so glad that the Supreme Court has let this ruling stand,” said Nan Lund, one of the plaintiffs in the case, according to an ACLU press release.

“This is an important victory for the rights of all people to be free from religious coercion by government officials,” ACLU of North Carolina’s Chris Brook said. “People who attend public meetings should not have to fear that government officials may force them to participate in a prayer—or discriminate against them if they don’t.”

Charles Duncan covers what’s happening right now across North and South Carolina, from breaking news to fun or interesting stories from across the region. He holds degrees from N.C. State University and Duke and lives two blocks from the ocean in Myrtle Beach.