Judge Finally Rules That Rowan County (NC) Board of Commissioners Must Stop Christian Prayers at Meetings

Years before the Supreme Court decided Greece v. Galloway, the Rowan County Board of Commissioners in North Carolina was praying to Jesus at virtually every meeting.

The Rowan County Board of Commissioners prays at a meeting (via WSOC-TV)

The ACLU of North Carolina warned the Commissioners about the problem in 2012, only to have their letter ignored. So they filed a lawsuit to stop the Christian prayers in March of 2013:

From November 5, 2007, through the present, nearly every Board meeting has featured a sectarian invocation. Specifically, 139 of 143 Board meetings opened with sectarian prayer during that time period. Put another way, 97% of Board meetings in the past five-and-a-half years have featured sectarian prayer.

Here’s just one example of what the invocations looked like over that time:

Father, we thank you for your grace and your glory. We ask you to be with us this evening as we conduct the business of Rowan County. We’d also like to ask you to have your will as it relates to all the burdens and problems the citizens of Rowan County have today. As we get ready to celebrate the Christmas season, we’d like to thank you for the Virgin Birth, we’d like to thank you for the Cross at Calvary, and we’d like to thank you for the resurrection. Because we do believe that there is only one way to salvation, and that is Jesus Christ. I ask all these things in the name of Jesus. Amen. [December 3, 2007]

When the invocations weren’t explicitly promoting Christianity, they were generic prayers that weren’t specific to any other faith.

Despite the lawsuit, the Commissioners didn’t stop praying. They instead hired an attorney. (Nearby Cornerstone Church offered to write the Board a $10,000 check, but it was rejected at the time.)

Things got even more Jesus-y the next month. State Reps. Harry Warren and Carl Ford, both Republicans, filed a bill that would allow the state to declare an official religion. If passed, the law would “nullify any federal ruling against Christian prayer by public bodies statewide.” It would violate the First Amendment, of course, but that wasn’t a concern to the legislators. (It’s only appropriate that the bill was filed on April 1.) In case you’re wondering, the bill went nowhere.

As you know by now, the Supreme Court ruled in Greece v. Galloway (2014) that sectarian prayers were okay under certain conditions: People of all faiths (and no faith) had to be allowed to deliver those invocations, and the governing bodies themselves couldn’t promote a particular belief over the others. In other words, the Rowan County commissioners, who delivered the prayers themselves and never allowed non-Christians to give the invocations, were still violating the law.

So the plaintiffs continued the lawsuit, saying that they were still right after the Greece ruling.

That brings us to today. U.S. District Judge James Beaty Jr. ruled that the Rowan County Board of Commissioners violated the law and continues to do so every time they utter a Christian prayer:

In the present matter, the Commissioners themselves — and only the Commissioners — delivered the prayers at the Board’s meetings. In contrast, the Town of Greece invited volunteers from a variety of religious faiths to provide the prayers.

Additionally, because of the prayer practice’s exclusive nature, that is, being delivered solely by the Commissioners, the prayer practice cannot be said to be nondiscriminatory. The need for the prayer policy to be nondiscriminatory was one of the characteristics key to the constitutionality of the Town of Greece’s practice…

That some day a believer in a minority faith could be elected does not remedy that until then, minority faiths have no means of being recognized.

It’s the ruling we’ve been waiting for, one that upholds church/state separation (as much as the law allows, anyway). The plaintiffs will receive $1 (because this was never about the money) and Rowan County taxpayers will now be on the hook to pay the ACLU’s legal fees. The exact amount has yet to be determined.

As you might expect, the plaintiffs and their lawyers are thrilled:

“I’m very glad that the court agrees that Rowan County and other local governments should work to be welcoming to residents of all beliefs, and not simply those who share the majority view,” said Nan Lund, the lead plaintiff in the case. “Rowan County is home to people of many different beliefs, and I think our officials should embrace that diversity and make public meetings as inclusive as possible.”

“Residents attending public meetings should not have to choose between participating in a religious exercise led by a government official and singling themselves out as a religious minority,” said Chris Brook, legal director for the ACLU of North Carolina Legal Foundation. “The message of today’s decision is clear: Rowan County’s prayer practice unconstitutionally discriminated against many of its residents, alienating many who simply wanted to play a role in local decision-making.”

It took a long time to get to this point, and the County may very well appeal, but they have no case. This is cut-and-dried promotion of Christianity through the government and it should’ve stopped a long time ago. Now the elected officials will have to face the taxpayers and explain why they deserve to stay in office.

Let’s hope voters remember that when elections come around.

The Board hasn’t issued a public statement as of this writing, but if they don’t appeal, they will have to change the prayer policy for their meetings ASAP.

(Thanks to Malinda for the link)

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