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Previous prayer cases don’t sway leaders Sides says Rowan has good chance of winning with range of decisions in courts

SALISBURY — As the nation’s courts seesaw on sectarian prayer at government meetings, Rowan County Chairman Jim Sides said he’s focused on his own case.

Sides said he read over copies of decisions in the 9th and 11th Circuit Courts of Appeals that side with the officials’ rights to sectarian prayer earlier this week.

He’s also seen a U.S. District Court in Rowan County’s circuit that went against commissioners’ offering sectarian prayer, citing the 2011 Joyner v. Forsyth County decision Wednesday.

“People ask why fight if you’re going to lose?” Sides said. “Well I don’t know I’m going to lose yet. I haven’t fought it. If you don’t fight, you lose.”

The county selected attorney David Gibbs of the National Center for Life and Liberty as lead counsel Monday.

But other litigators have pledged their support for the commissioners, Sides said. Some were even involved in the Joyner case.

“I’ve actually told all of them they’re second chair, that there’s a higher power that’s first chair,” Sides said. “They’re all good attorneys. They’re excellent on this type case. Just because you lose a case doesn’t mean you’re a bad attorney.”

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One of Rowan County’s advocates, attorney Bryce Neier of Fayetteville, said the county filed and was awarded an extension in the case Friday morning. Lawyers now have until May 1 to discuss arguments in the county’s defense, he said.

Gibbs, the lead counsel, could not be reached for comment.

The country saw diverging opinions this week as the 9th and 11th Circuits denied appeals that alleged opening meetings with sectarian prayer was unconstitutional.

In Lakeland, Fla., a U.S. Appeals court decided the prayers had not “resulted in proselytizing or advancing the Christian religion over all others solely because the speakers who were selected included sectarian references in their prayers,” according to the lawsuit.

Similarly in California, a U.S. Appeals court looked at the city of Lancaster’s practice of soliciting volunteers from local congregations, regardless of faith, to lead invocations.

The court found “a bishop’s single reference to Jesus in an invocation did not amount to a violation of the Establishment Clause.” The court also ruled that nothing in the record or city’s prayer policy indicated the city had affiliated itself with Christianity.

But in Virginia’s Pittsylvania County, which like the Joyner case did, would rise to the Fourth Circuit if it were to go to an appeals stage — a U.S. District Court judge sided with the plaintiff.

Citing the Joyner decision, U.S. District Judge Michael Urbanski said commissioners’ sectarian prayer was unconstitutional and the board “advocates a view of the law inconsistent with controlling United States Supreme Court and Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals precedent.

ACLU Attorney Chris Brook said the Virginia case is “affirmation” that the law in the Fourth Circuit says sectarian prayer during a government meeting is unconstitutional.

“I think it just underlines what was already clear in the Fourth Circuit,” Brook said. “You cannot open legislative session with prayer that favors one set of religious beliefs over another.”

But as far away as the 9th and 11th Circuits are, Neier said, the split decisions have paved the way for the U.S. Supreme Court to take up a case for discussion.

“I think the other federal circuits are looking at the Fourth Circuit, saying, ‘What are you doing?’ ” Neier said.

He encouraged Rowan County residents to read the courts’ opinions and said he thinks the only resolution lies in Washington.

“This is my opinion,” Neier said. “I think that it needs, this issue, needs to go to the U.S. Supreme Court because of the split in the circuits, and it needs to be resolved.”

Contact Nathan Hardin at 704-797-4246 or follow him on Twitter at @rowanpol.

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