U.S. appeals court strikes down prayer practice before government meeting

7/21/2017, 12:53 p.m.
Government officials who lead Christian prayers to open meetings are violating the U.S. Constitution, a divided federal appeals court in ...

Government officials who lead Christian prayers to open meetings are violating the U.S. Constitution, a divided federal appeals court in Richmond has ruled.

The 10-5 decision was handed down Friday, July 14, in a case involving an effort to stop the long-running practice at meetings of county commissioners in rural Rowan County, N.C., about 40 miles northeast of Charlotte.

Three residents challenged the commissioners’ practice of having one member, on a rotating basis, start a meeting with a prayer while asking those in attendance to participate by standing and responding to the words.

Ninety-seven percent of the 143 prayers recited since 2012 were Christian-based, according to information presented to the court.

In a rare case involving all of the judges of the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, the majority rejected an earlier decision by a three-judge panel of the appeals court and reinstated a lower court’s ruling striking down the Rowan County practice.

Writing for the majority, Judge J. Harvie Wilkinson III stated that praying to open a meeting is legal, but that Rowan County’s board went too far in focusing on a single, preferred faith.

“The prayer practice served to identify the government with Christianity and risked conveying to citizens of minority faiths a message of exclusion,” wrote Judge Wilkinson, who dissented when a panel that included two of his colleagues found Rowan County’s practice was constitutional.

“Indeed, if elected representatives invite their constituents to participate in prayers invoking a single faith for meeting upon meeting, year after year, it is difficult to imagine constitutional limits to sectarian prayer practice,” Judge Wilkinson continued.

Judge Wilkinson distinguished prior U.S. Supreme Court decisions that upheld the use of clergy to open state legislative sessions and local government meetings, even when most or all of the clergy are Christian.

Judge Paul Niemeyer dissented. He wrote that the majority effectively sought “to outlaw most prayer given in governmental assemblies, even though such prayer has always been an important part of the fabric of our democracy and civic life.”

In a separate dissent, Judge G. Steven Agee said the majority’s approach lets lawmakers “offer only a generic prayer to a generic god.”

“This opinion should be the last word,” said Chris Brook, an American Civil Liberties Union lawyer who represented the three people who challenged the practice. “No one should fear being discriminated against because they don’t participate in prayer.”

Greg Edds, the Rowan County board chairman, wrote in an email response, “While the decision is certainly disappointing, it is not surprising. (We) will be reviewing it over the next several weeks with our legal team to decide where we go from here.”

There is an expectation that Rowan County might seek a review of the case from the U.S. Supreme Court.