Christian Prayers at County Board Meetings Deemed Constitutional, Federal Court Rules

Elected officials may continue to open public meetings with prayers, a federal appeals court ruled on Wednesday.

A three-judge panel of the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals decided in a 2-1 vote that Rowan County’s five-member commission can open meetings with prayers and that doing so is not considered unconstitutional as long as the members do not proselytize.

The American Civil Liberties Union, representing three Rowan County residents, sued the commission in 2013, having observed that in five and a half years, their board meetings began with predominantly Christian prayers. The residents claimed they felt coerced to participate in the prayers.

North Carolina U.S. District Judge James Beaty ruled against the commission in 2013, maintaining that the prayers violate the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.

In 2014, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that local clergy can open with Christian prayers at public meetings in Greece, New York. In Greece, religious leaders of different religious traditions would be invited to pray.

However, Rowan County’s case differs in that the commissioners themselves are offering the prayers.

The 4th Circuit Court ruling reversed the district court decision, arguing that opening meetings with prayers are a part of tradition.

“Not only are the legislators themselves the intended ‘congregation’ for legislative prayer, but the practice carries special meaning to the thousands of state and local legislators who are citizen representatives,” Judge G. Steven Agee wrote in the opinion.

“Adults are not presumed susceptible to religious indoctrination or pressure simply from speech they would rather not hear. Thus, there is limited risk that disenchanted listeners would be affected by mere contact with lawmaker-led legislative prayer,” Agee continued. “The Board’s legislative prayer practice amounts to nothing more than an individual commissioner leading a prayer of his or her own choosing.”

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