RICHMOND, Va. – The Fourth Circuit for the U.S. Court of Appeals ruled in a 10-5 vote that opening public meetings with prayers is unconstitutional.
Rowan County commissioners opened public meetings with a Christian prayer and coerced public participation by asking those present to stand and join, according to a press release from the Appeals Court, making many residents feel coerced and pressured into doing so.
The national ACLU Program of Freedom of Religion and Belief, and the ACLU of North Carolina filed the lawsuit against the prayer practice in March 2013 on behalf of three Rowan County residents.
Nan Lund, the lead plaintiff in the case said, “No one in this community should fear being forced by government officials to participate in a prayer, or fear being discriminated against because they didn’t participate in a prayer before a meeting for all the public.”
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In May 2015, a federal district court ruled Rowan County’s practice unconstitutional and ordered the commissioners to cease opening their meetings with coercive, sectarian prayer and a request that the public join them in prayers that advanced one faith.
Rowan County appealed that ruling and in September 2016 a divided 2-1 panel of the Fourth Circuit overturned the district court ruling. However, all 15 judges on the Fourth Circuit later agreed to vacate and reconsider that 2-1 decision. Oral arguments were held in front of all 15 judges in March 2017.
Chris Brooks, Legal Director of the ACLU of North Carolina, who argued the case, said, “This ruling is a great victory for the rights of all residents to participate in their local government without fearing discrimination or being forced to join in prayers that go against their beliefs.”
“This decision serves as an important reminder that there are significant constitutional limits on government-sponsored prayer,” said Daniel Mach, director of the ACLU Program on Freedom of Religion and Belief.