Federal Judge declares commissioner prayers unconstitutional

Published 12:10 am Tuesday, May 5, 2015

A federal court judge on Monday ruled the Rowan County Board of Commissioners’ past practice of offering only Christian prayers before meetings unconstitutional.

U.S. District Judge James Beaty specifically took issue with commissioners’ practice of asking attendees to stand before meeting prayers without mentioning options to leave the room and not allowing members of the public to deliver a prayer. Beaty cited the U.S. Supreme Court case Town of Greece vs. Galloway, in which justices decided the city could permit chaplains to open each meeting with a prayer.

“The board’s practice fails to be nondiscriminatory, entangles government with religion, and over time establishes a pattern of prayers that tends to advance the Christian faith of the elected commissioners at the expense of any religious affiliation unrepresented by the majority,” Beaty wrote in his ruling.

His decision stated the Rowan County Commissioners’ practice is unconstitutionally coercive and violates the U.S. Constitution’s establishment clause — “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof” — by dividing along religious lines and pressuring attendees to conform to the faith represented by commissioners. His ruling ordered that plaintiffs Nan Lund, Liesa Montag-Siegel and Robert Voelker be paid $1 in damages. The plaintiffs, represented by the American Civil Liberties Union, can also pursue attorney’s fees and costs, according to Beaty’s ruling.

His ruling permanently barred commissioners from continuing its previous practices in the future.

North Carolina ACLU Legal Director Chris Brook said the organization plans to pursue attorney’s fees. Brook said the commissioners should adopt more inclusive, welcoming policies as a result of the judge’s ruling. When asked for an example of a policy, Brook said commissioners shouldn’t direct meeting attendees to participate in prayers.

“I think this (ruling) sends a very strong signal, which is that governmental actors cannot deliver prayers that are reflective of only one portion of the community over and over and over again, and direct those attending to participate in those prayers,” Brook said.

Beaty’s decision was released before Monday’s 3 p.m. commissioner meeting. Commissioners Chairman Greg Edds and County Attorney Jay Dees declined to comment specifically on the ruling just before the Monday meeting convened. Both said they’d need to read the ruling fully before commenting. Dees referred questions to the attorney representing Rowan County in the case, Barbara Weller. Weller is an attorney for The Gibbs Firm, which has offices in Texas, Florida and Washington D.C.

An emailed statement from the firm said the judge’s ruling didn’t say sectarian prayer was unconstitutional. Because the U.S. Supreme Court hasn’t ruled on whether legislators may offer the opening payers themselves, any and all opening legislative prayers are constitutional, the Gibbs Firm statement said.

“Of course, we do not agree with this decision, nor do we agree that the citizens who sued Rowan County were ever coerced by the commissioners into praying,” the Gibbs Firm statement said.

Beaty’s ruling agreed with the law firm’s assessment to a certain point, but said it was “telling” that throughout the Town of Greece, N.Y. ruling, the U.S. Supreme Court “consistently discussed legislative prayer practices in terms of invited ministers, clergy, or volunteers providing the prayer, and not once described a situation in which the legislators themselves gave the invocation.”

The National Center for Life and Liberty, which includes members of the Gibbs Firm, isn’t charging Rowan County for its legal services in the suit, according to the statement. County government would, however, be responsible for any required legal fees, if ordered by a judge.

Commissioners Mike Caskey and Craig Pierce both agreed to comment on the ruling. Caskey said he’d support an appeal.

“This is a First Amendment issue to us,” Caskey said. “We think anyone who gets elected should be able to pray however they like no matter what faith they are.”

Commissioners’ intent was never to promote a specific religion, Pierce said.

“Everybody that was on the board when the lawsuit was filed was a devout Christian,” Pierce said. “We just felt it was something that was the right thing to do.”

The lawsuit, said plaintiff and Salisbury resident Nan Lund, shouldn’t be interpreted as anti-prayer. The problem she said was praying at a government meeting and expecting everyone to participate.

“I want to live in a place that is diverse,” Lund said. “I think we should honor that diversity and welcome it. That means having policies that are inclusive as possible.”

Caskey said commissioners have avoided certain words, such as Jesus, in compliance with Beaty’s earlier temporary injunction. The ruling released Monday is a permanent injunction, preventing the prayer practices in the future. During Monday’s meeting, Edds offered the opening prayer and largely avoided any words associated with religion.

Dees said commissioners haven’t taken any action to determine how to proceed in the case. Dees said in the future commissioners would be presented with findings in the case.

Contact reporter Josh Bergeron at 704-797-4246.