For as long as anyone can remember—for over seventy years, according to archived records—Rowan County, North Carolina, commissioners have opened their meetings with prayer. Not surprisingly, the ACLU challenged this longstanding practice in a case known as Lund v. Rowan County, taking particular umbrage with the name of Jesus being used in some of these prayers.
In March of 2013, Nan Lund, a private citizen from Rowan County, was one of three plaintiffs to file suit against the Rowan County Board of Commissioners. In a press release she said, “I want my local government to be open and welcoming to people of all beliefs. But when officials begin a public meeting with prayers that are specific to only one religious viewpoint, I feel unwelcome and excluded.”
The NCLL came to the defense of the Rowan County commissioners. As NCLL president David Gibbs III pointed out, “Rowan County isn’t attempting to coerce or proselytize anyone. The fact that the commissioners are simply praying prayers consistent with their Christian faith is merely an exercise of their constitutional rights.”
On September 19, 2016, the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond, Virginia, agreed with the NCLL by affirming the Rowan County commissioners’ right to open its meetings with prayer, overturning a 2015 lower court ruling.
When the case was filed in 2013, Federal Judge James A. Beaty Jr. (nominated to the court by Bill Clinton) quickly ordered the commissioners to end their invocations while the case was being settled. In 2015, Beaty issued his final ruling, concluding that the commissioners’ prayers were unconstitutional: “The practice fails to be nondiscriminatory, entangles government with religion, and over time, establishes a pattern of prayers that tends to advance the Christian faith of the elected commissioners at the expense of any religious affiliation unrepresented by the majority.”
Interestingly, Beaty based his ruling on the US Supreme Court case Greece v. Galloway, which approved city council prayers in Greece, New York, that were predominantly but not solely Christian. Beaty concluded that Rowan County’s prayers were different because they were solely Christian prayers.
As the case went to the Court of Appeals, Gibbs III noted that the ACLU changed its strategy: “Their original argument that the name Jesus was unconstitutional has already been struck down by the Supreme Court. So, they sort of flipped to saying ‘you may have the right to pray, but you’re doing it in too much of a proselytizing manner, and you’re putting pressure on people in attendance.’ In other words, instead of arguing that they cannot pray, the ACLU shifted to saying they’re doing it with too much coercion, acknowledging that the Supreme Court said prayers are allowable, but now saying they’re doing it the wrong way.”
In 2015, North Carolina congressman Richard Hudson led seventeen bipartisan members of Congress to file an amicus brief affirming the NCLL’s defense of the commissioners.As Congressman Hudson pointed out, “Our country enjoys an extensive tradition of elected officials making public, religious statements that invite—but do not coerce—private citizens to participate. As the amicus brief shows, the district court’s decision is unmoored from that historical tradition and should be reversed.”
Another issue presented in the case was whether or not the commissioners themselves could lead the prayers or whether that was a role for a neutral chaplain.
Wisely, the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals also cited Greece v. Galloway in overturning Beaty’s ruling. They concluded that Judge Beaty wrongly interpreted the Supreme Court to be saying that elected officials could not be the ones to lead opening prayers. Fourth Circuit Appellate Court Judge G. Steven Agee (nominated by President George W. Bush) wrote: “On a broader level, and more importantly, 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.”
Needless to say, the ACLU plans to appeal the decision, and the NCLL will oppose them each step of the way, continuing its vigilant defense of the Rowan County commissioners’ right to freely exercise their religion.
First, we ask you to join us in giving thanks to the Lord for this landmark ruling by the Court of Appeals. We also ask that you please continue to pray for this case and for the NCLL as we provide pro bono representation of Rowan County all the way to the Supreme Court.