Editorial: Fine lines of free speech, religious freedom
Fighting a lawsuit that challenges the use of Christian prayer to open official government meetings is one thing. Ignoring an injunction is another.
Rowan County Commissioner Jon Barber dropped hints Friday that he might not obey a injunction halting sectarian prayer as a part of commission meetings while a lawsuit regarding prayer works its way through the courts. Asked about his planned invocation for Monday’s board meeting. Barber said, “I will always pray in the name of Jesus.”
No one disagrees with Barber’s right to do just that in virtually every venue of his life. But if he does so as part of Monday’s meeting, Barber would be violating a federal court injunction — deliberately breaking the law. He would also disregard a policy the Board of Commissioners approved in April, turning the invocation over to a chaplain assigned to give a non-sectarian prayer.
A person’s right to pray as he chooses is sacrosanct, a vital part of the freedoms of speech and religion Americans cherish. But government officials who always use Christian prayer to open their meetings — asking everyone in the room to stand in participation — blur the lines between their personal beliefs and government policy and, some say, violate the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.
Whether that is the case is now a matter for the courts. Rowan County is defending itself in a lawsuit over the issue, Lund v. Rowan. A court ruled against the constitutionality of similar prayers at Forsyth County commission meetings, and many elected boards began using a moment of silence or nonsectarian prayers. Rowan commissioners have refused to do so and insist their case is different.
U.S. District Judge James Beaty does not agree with that. When he issued the injunction, he turned down Rowan’s request to stay the case until the U.S. Supreme Court rules in Galloway v. Town of Greece, N.Y., a similar suit. “[T]he applicable law, as it stands today, prohibits the type of sectarian legislative prayer at issue in Galloway and alleged in this case,” Beaty said.
Whether Barber defies or obeys the injunction may be as much about legal strategy as deeply ingrained beliefs. He has professed his faith and would sacrifice nothing by allowing a chaplain to carry out the board-approved invocation. However residenets may feel about the lawsuit and the county’s fight against it, Rowan citizens should stand together when it comes to respect for the law and the courts.