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Judge orders injunction in commissioners’ prayer suit

GREENSBORO — A federal judge has ordered Rowan County commissioners to stop sectarian prayers before meetings while a lawsuit over the practice makes its way through the courts — a move one commissioner says the county expected.
In an order filed Tuesday, Judge James A. Beaty Jr. granted a motion submitted on behalf of three complainants who said their rights were violated by prayers, most of which are in Jesus’ name.
“Defendant Rowan County, North Carolina is hereby enjoined from knowingly and/or intentionally delivering or allowing to be delivered sectarian prayers at meetings of the Rowan County Board of Commissioners during the pendency of this suit,” says a docket entry for U.S. Middle District Court.
Nancy Lund, Liesa Montag-Siegel and Robert Voelker brought the suit in March, supported by the American Civil Liberties Union in North Carolina.
In his ruling Beaty also denied Rowan County’s motions to dismiss the case and to stay the proceedings while similar cases are heard in higher courts.
In a phone interview minutes after Beaty submitted his decision Tuesday, Montag-Siegel described her reaction as “delighted.”
“We feel that the judge recognized that the law applies to everyone and that what we’re asking for — which is for people to feel equal and for people to not feel left out when they come to meeting — has been listened to,” she said.
Montag-Seigel said she doesn’t know what kind of bearing the decision will have on the case, but added, “It’s very encouraging.”
Rowan County Commissioners Vice Chairman Craig Pierce said the injunction didn’t come as a surprise.
“We anticipated this from the outset,” Pierce said. “That’s why we put forth our resolution about two months ago that would enable us to continue praying. This is just one more step we knew we’d have to take.”
The resolution, which Pierce said was prompted by the county’s attorneys, allows a local chaplain chosen by commissioners to provide an invocation. Commissioners passed it in April.
Pierce said he had not read the court’s decision Tuesday evening, but said the resolution should allow for continued prayer.
“I’m assuming what we had in our resolution a couple months ago covers anything that we’d need to have to do so we can continue to having prayers.”
The chaplain chosen for the upcoming commissioners’ meeting is the Rev. Michael Taylor, who volunteers as a chaplain for the Rowan County Sheriff’s Office.
Chris Brook, Legal Director for the ACLU of North Carolina Legal Foundation, said decisions in the Fourth Circuit on opening meetings with prayer have been “very clear.”
“We’re very pleased that the court reaffirmed one of the most basic principles of religious liberty,” Brook said, “that members of the community should be treated and welcomed equally by their government regardless of their personal religious beliefs.”
Still, the language of Beaty’s decision, Brook said, is “also very clear that elected officials are not going to be permitted to allow others to open their meetings with sectarian prayer” during the litigation.
“We’re hopeful that ultimately the court will permanently enjoin Rowan County from opening their governmental meeting with prayers that favor one set of religious beliefs over another,” he said.
Contact reporter Nathan Hardin at 704-797-4246.

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