County Prayer Ruled Unconstitutional

The 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in July that the Board of Commissioners in Rowan County, N.C., violated the Constitution by the way it opened its meetings with prayer.

The commissioners had been opening meetings with prayer for years before three community members complained in 2013. The three are represented in the case by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU).

In 2015, a district court declared the county’s prayer practice unconstitutional, but in 2016 a three-judge panel of the 4th Circuit Court overturned that decision by a 2-1 count.

Then in July, by a vote of 10-5, the full 4th Circuit Court affirmed the original ruling that the prayer was unconstitutional. The majority pointed to the fact that the commissioners offered the prayers themselves, their prayers referenced only the Christian faith and attendees were requested to stand for the prayers, making some feel pressured to conform even if they were not Christian. The majority’s opinion was written by Judge J. Harvie Wilkinson, who had been the lone dissenting judge on the 2016 panel that ruled in favor of the prayers.

In a scathing dissent of the latest ruling, Judge Paul Niemeyer asserted that Wilkinson and the ACLU “have acted with harmonious parallelism.” He noted that the majority opinion is at odds with the Supreme Court’s support of such prayer. And he said Wilkinson’s legal reasoning is based largely on “isolated quotations from [Wilkinson’s] own opinions, either in dissent or overruled, or from the very district court opinion it is reviewing in this case.” Indeed, the July decision quotes from Wilkinson’s earlier dissent no less than 15 times. Niemeyer added, “This approach amounts simply to a barely disguised disagreement with the Supreme Court’s support of sectarian legislative prayer.”

Attorney David C. Gibbs III, of the National Center for Life and Liberty, is representing Rowan County. He told Decision: “We were disappointed that the full court did not recognize what the U.S. Supreme Court has always historically recognized: that these types of governmental meetings are allowed to be opened in prayer, including prayers that include the Name of Jesus.” He added that the court’s majority seemed to go overboard to claim that they were following Supreme Court precedent while being determined to find a way to ban the prayers.

The Board of Commissioners must now decide whether or not to appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court, and Commissioner Craig Pierce said he will vote to do so. “This is just total manipulation by the liberals to try to strip away the conservative values of this country,” he said.  ©2017 BGEA