ACLU files suit against Rowan County
SALISBURY — The American Civil Liberties Union of North Carolina filed a lawsuit against Rowan County today, accusing county commissioners of violating the First Amendment by beginning meetings with sectarian prayer.
The ACLU brought the action more than a year after Rowan commissioners thumbed their noses at a warning letter authored by the civil rights organization. That letter asked board members to cease and desist prayer that favored one religion, which it said was unconstitutional.
Three Rowan County residents — Nan Lund, Liesa Montag-Siegel and Bob Voelker — are listed as plaintiffs in the suit, filed in U.S. District Court in Greensboro.
“These are elected officials delivering prayers that value one set of beliefs over another,” Chris Brook, legal director for the ACLU, said Tuesday.
The lawsuit asks for a preliminary injunction requiring commissioners to stop the sectarian prayer.
In a meeting with Post editors and reporters Tuesday, Lund, Montag-Siegel and Voelker said the board’s opening prayer not only makes them feel excluded, but has also impaired their advocacy on other issues.
Lund said she has regularly attended commissioners meetings since moving to Rowan County in 2001,
“I was immediately struck by the nature of the opening prayer and felt like either I had to be a little disingenuous and go through the motions — standing for the prayer, bowing my head and so on, which felt not true to myself — or to be conspicuous by not doing that,” Lund said. “So I felt unwelcome, and I felt like it was an uncomfortable situation for me and not one that I freely would participate in.”
Lund declined to discuss her religious views.
ACLU officials said they waited a year to file to give county leaders time to comply with the requests.
The ACLU penned a letter to Rowan commissioners Feb. 15, 2012, citing a Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals decision that ruled county meetings could not begin with sectarian prayer.
In the 2011 case of Joyner v. Forsyth County Board of Commissioners, Judge J. Harvie Wilkinson III ruled prayer should be non-denominational and should “send a signal of welcome, rather than exclusion.”
“... Prayer in governmental settings carries risks,” Wilkinson wrote in his decision. “The proximity of prayer to official government business can create an environment in which the government prefers — or appears to prefer — particular sects or creeds at the expense of others.”
But in a sea of Christian supporters who prayed and sang hymns at the next meeting on March 5, 2012, county leaders scoffed at the warning.
In an e-mail to other county commissioners last spring, Jim Sides called the warning “ridiculous.”
“I will continue to pray in JESUS name,” Sides wrote. “Chairman (Chad) Mitchell, I volunteer to be the first to go to jail for this cause ... and if you will go my bail in time for the next meeting, I will go again!”
Reached by phone Tuesday, Sides, who is now chairman of the board, said the commissioners may discuss the lawsuit at Monday’s meeting.
“It kindly depends on what the lawyer thinks we ought to do,” Sides said, adding that County Attorney Jay Dees had emailed commissioners making them aware of the suit.
“My position hasn’t changed, probably won’t change,” he said.
Sides said Vice Chairman Craig Pierce is slated to give Monday’s invocation.
Pierce could not be reached for comment this afternoon.
Commissioner Jon Barber told the Post he expected the litigation.
“I’m not surprised. When they first informed our attorney in February of last year our practice was illegal, we just continued the practice,” Barber said. “I anticipated the point that we would hear from them again.”
The lawsuit says that 139 out of 143 board meetings from Nov. 5, 2007, through the present, began with sectarian prayer.
The four non-sectarian prayers were delivered by former Commissioner Raymond Coltrain, the lawsuit said.
Board members’ prayers have varied in style, the suit said, closing with phrases like, “in the name of Jesus, the King of Kings and the Lord of Lords,” “in the name of our Risen Lord, Jesus Christ,” and sometimes simply, “in Jesus’ name.”
Commissioner Mike Caskey wasn’t on the board in 2012 when county leaders received the letter. But he said Tuesday he would fight to continue the Christian prayers.
“I’m not going to change anything ... I think it’s our freedom of speech and freedom of religion to say whatever we want,” Caskey said.
He added that he thinks the ACLU — whose officials said they’ve received more complaints about Rowan commissioners than any other county — were doing it for the money.
“They’re just doing it for publicity,” he said, “just trying to make a living suing people.”
In an email response Tuesday evening, Mike Meno, communications director for the ACLU, said the organization responds to complaints from N.C. residents, and doesn’t operate for monetary gain.
“... We are a non-profit organization whose stated mission is to defend the constitutional rights of all North Carolinians,” he said. “We only take action in cases when we receive a complaint from a local resident.”
Following the Forsyth County court decision, more than 20 counties in North Carolina changed their prayer policies to reflect the law, said Brook, the ACLU attorney.
Montag-Siegel, who moved to Rowan County in 1994 with her family, called the commissioners’ prayer “deliberately unwelcoming.”
“I don’t think that a government agency that’s elected and holding a meeting should set up an atmosphere that excludes anyone,” she said.
Montag-Siegel, who is Jewish, said a Jewish prayer would make the meetings equally uncomfortable for others.
“I think that it wouldn’t help if they were starting every meeting with a Shema,” she said. “It would be just as uncomfortable and would be excluding to a whole other group of people.”
Voelker said he opposed the prayer last spring and suggested an alternative prayer that was used by another elected group.
But, aside from Coltrain he said, it fell on deaf ears.
“It was after I addressed the council in the public comment session that Mr. Coltrain began altering his prayer policy,” Voelker said, “So he attempted to comply with that, but none of the others chose to.”
Commissioner Chad Mitchell said he doesn’t see the pending litigation as a distraction for a board dealing with several issues, including Rowan County airport de-annexation.
“I really can’t say what the board as a whole is going to do moving forward,” Mitchell said. “My preference is we continue doing as we’ve been doing. I don’t see it as a violation of the law.”
But Brook, the ACLU attorney, said if commissioners choose to ignore the lawsuit, he hopes an injunction will force them to change their policy while a possibly lengthy court battle proceeds.
“... There has been, is currently, and we have reason to believe will continue to be violations of the First Amendment here,” he said. “Those violations need to be addressed in a timely fashion.”
Contact reporter Nathan Hardin at 704-797-4246.