RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — A federal appeals court wrestled on Wednesday with whether local government leaders in North Carolina are violating the Constitution by holding exclusively Christian prayers at their meetings — the first time a court at that level has addressed the issue since the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in a town government’s favor in a similar case in 2014.
An attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union urged a three-judge panel of the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals to uphold the lower court’s ruling that the Rowan County Commissioner’s practice of opening their meetings with prayers that almost always referred to Christianity was “unconstitutionality coercive.”
But a lawyer for the Rowan County Commission said the recent Supreme Court decision supports its case and asked the judges not to engage in “difficult line drawing” between the church and state.
The Supreme Court has already ruled that it’s appropriate for local clergy to deliver predominantly Christian prayers and town meetings in New York. At issue now is whether it makes a difference that the Rowan County prayers are being given by the commissioners themselves and whether their invitation for the audience to join them in prayer should be seen as coercive.
Chris Brook, an attorney for the ACLU, said the commissioners’ language shows they were proselytizing, instead of simply delivering opening prayers for their own benefit, which the Supreme Court judges stressed as a key part of their reasoning for upholding the prayers in New York.
“They have made plain that the audience of these prayers is not only elected officials, but the Rowan County citizens,” said Brook, who was joined in court Wednesday by two of the three residents who sued the Commission in 2013 with the support of the ACLU. The commissioners routinely asked residents at the meetings to stand and “pray with us” and used language such as, “I pray that the citizens of Rowan County will love you, Lord.”
But two of the judges — Dennis W. Shedd and G. Steven Agee — questioned whether the commissioners asking residents to stand and join in prayer could be seen as coercion, noting they could choose to remain seated or leave the room during the prayer.
An attorney for the Commission stressed that the Rowan County case is no different from the one in New York. She told the judges that the constitutionality of the commission’s prayers shouldn’t hinge on whether they are being delivered by commissioners or by a clergy member that are selected by government officials.
“Either way, it’s the government speaking,” Texas attorney Allyson Ho said.
But Judge J. Harvie Wilkinson III said what he finds different — and “concerning” — about the Rowan County case is the combination of the fact that the commissioners are delivering the prayers and that the invocations consistently reference just one faith.
“The prayers are eloquent and beautiful,” Wilkinson said. “The problem is the setting, which is the most basic unit of government, which affects the lives of all citizens — not just one particular faith.”
Both sides acknowledged that the appeals court decision, which is expected in the coming weeks, could have wide implications as it is the first big test of how the Supreme Court’s 2014 ruling will be applied.
“The nation will be looking at this case,” David Gibbs, another attorney for the Commission who’s with the National Center for Life and Liberty, said after the hearing.
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