Rowan County, North Carolina has agreed to pay $285,000 after losing a five-year court battle over the legality of prayers offered by County Commissioners at public meetings. Commissioners voted last week to pay the legal fees incurred by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), thus ending a longstanding series of appeals and counter appeals in the case. The suit was originally filed in 2013 by the ACLU and contended that public prayer led by Commissioners at the beginning of each meeting was unconstitutional. The case ultimately landed at the door of the U.S. Supreme Court but ended when the High Court refused to take up the case.
The issue seems far from settled, however, as the outcome of this case appears to conflict with the 2014 U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Town of Greece v. Galloway. In that case, the Supreme Court rejected any requirement that legislative prayers be neutral in content and invoke only a generic God. In May 2015, U.S District Court Judge James Beaty said the Rowan County case was different, because in Town of Greece, volunteers were invited to offer prayers “from a variety of religious faiths.” Rowan County, on the other hand, had elected commissioners offer the prayers. According to Beaty, “Under the Board’s practice, the government is delivering prayers that were exclusively prepared and controlled by the government, constituting a much greater and more intimate government involvement in the prayer practice than at issue in Town of Greece…”
According to court documents, over a six-year period the Commission rotated the opening prayer between its members, and 97 percent of the prayers were Christian. Three county residents, represented by the ACLU, filed a lawsuit and argued that the commissioners “violated the Constitution by coercing members of the public to join in prayers that overwhelmingly advanced beliefs specific to one religion.” Judge Beaty agreed that the practice of the commissioners leading prayer and “directing the public to stand and pray, violates the bedrock principles of the Establishment Clause, in that it serves as an unconstitutionally coercive practice.”
In the month following Judge Beaty’s ruling, the Commission voted unanimously to pursue an appeal to the U.S. Court of Appeals. In September 2016, a three-judge panel of the Fourth Circuit reversed Judge Beaty’s ruling. In that opinion, the Court said “the very ‘history and tradition’ anchoring the Supreme Court’s holding in Town of Greece underscores a long-standing practice not only of legislative prayer generally but of lawmaker-led prayer specifically. Opening invocations offered by elected legislators have long been accepted as a permissible form of religious observance.” However, in an “en banc” appeal of that decision (before all fifteen of their judges), the entire Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled 10-5 in July 2017 that the Commission’s practice was unconstitutional, saying “The prayer practice served to identify the government with Christianity and risked conveying to citizens of minority faiths a message of exclusion. And because the commissioners were the exclusive prayer-givers, Rowan County’s invocation practice falls well outside the more inclusive, minister-oriented practice of legislative prayer described in Town of Greece.”
The Rowan County legal battle ended in June 2018, when the U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear their case on appeal. Interestingly, the Supreme Court had refused to hear the appeal of a county commission prayer case from Michigan in September 2017. In that case, however, the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that prayers by the commissioners did not violate the Constitution. These conflicting rulings leave unsettled the legality of prayer led by an elected official at governmental meetings.
Associate Justice Clarence Thomas criticized the Supreme Court’s failure to hear Rowan County’s case because now “state and local lawmakers can lead prayers in Tennessee, Kentucky, Ohio, and Michigan, but not in South Carolina, North Carolina, Virginia, Maryland, or West Virginia.” Justice Thomas said the “Court should have stepped in to resolve this conflict.” It remains to be seen whether the Supreme Court will eventually answer this lingering question by hearing and ruling on a similar case in the future.
“We had hoped the Supreme Court would take this opportunity to reaffirm and clarify its 2014 ruling for the lower courts so that no further confusion would exist,” said Alliance Defending Freedom Senior Counsel Brett Harvey who worked on the case along with attorneys from First Liberty Institute and The National Center for Life and Liberty. “Though it didn’t take up the issue again in the Rowan County case, it will likely see this matter again down the road.”