Commissioners vote to appeal prayer ruling

Published 12:10 am Tuesday, June 2, 2015

They only needed three votes, but got all five.

In front of a standing room only crowd, Rowan County Commissioners on Monday unanimously voted to appeal a federal judge’s ruling that declared prayer practices from 2007 to 2013 unconstitutional. Commissioners’ unanimous vote moves the case from North Carolina’s Middle District Court to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit.

A loud applause from the audience followed commissioners’ vote.

James Beaty, a judge for North Carolina’s Middle District, ruled in April that commissioners violated the U.S. Constitution’s first amendment by only allowing commissioners to offer prayers at the beginning of meetings. Beaty’s ruling specifically said commissioners violated the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. During Monday’s meeting, however, multiple commissioners invoked the First Amendment as a reason for continuing with an appeal.

“What’s really at risk is our right to free speech,” Klusman said. “If we don’t have that right, what will come next?”

Commissioners Chairman Greg Edds was the first to speak and officially cast his vote during Monday’s meeting. Edds spoke after a parade of public comments, which included former County Commissioners Chairman Jim Sides, School Board Vice Chairman Dean Hunter and School Board Member Chuck Hughes. Some speakers weren’t Rowan County residents. A majority of the attendees who spoke during a public comment period expressed support for commissioners’ decision to appeal.

Edds expounded on his reasoning for proceeding with an appeal for more than 30 minutes. He described details of related cases around the United States, specifically mentioning the Town of Greece vs. Galloway U.S. Supreme Court Case and Joyner vs. Forsyth County. Beaty also used the Town of Greece case as reasoning for declaring prayer practices unconstitutional.

As the first speaker, Edds was effectively the third vote, ensuring enough votes for an appeal to proceed. Before Monday’s meeting, Commissioners Mike Caskey and Craig Pierce had already publicly expressed support for an appeal.

Commissioners’ reasoning

Edds said he spent countless hours studying the issue, trying to understand legal ramifications. During his soliloquy, Edds said he read hundreds of legal decisions before deciding how to vote.

“Do I, as a follower of Christ, have an even higher duty to represent my office, my community and my faith?” Edds said. “Well, before those who are watching, the answer is yes. Because of my faith, I am compelled to be sure that I am respectful to my fellow commissioners, to those I represent and even to those with whom I disagree.”

He said there was no better way to show tolerance than to encourage religious tolerance from everyone.

“The fact is one day a Jewish Commissioner will sit in this seat,” Edds said. “Regardless of what cynics say, I will rise and respectfully honor and support my Jewish commissioner as they offer up their Jewish prayers.”

He continued listing off other religions, saying he would pray with any county commissioner of a different religion. The current composition of Rowan County’s commissioners is entirely Christian.

Caskey spoke after Edds and quickly became emotional during his speech.

“My fellow commissioners, I think you know where I stand on this issue. It’s the same place I’ve stood from the beginning,” Caskey said. “We find ourselves in a place today that none of us asked to be put, but, nonetheless, here we are.”

Caskey continued, saying commissioners had a right and a duty to appeal Beaty’s ruling.

“I believe God puts us in places in our lives for specific reasons,” he said. “This could be one of those reasons.”

As a reason for his vote to appeal, Vice Chairman Jim Greene said the ruling by Beaty conflicted with prior rulings in the U.S. Supreme Court.

“Public prayer is a longstanding tradition of the United States, from the county level to the halls of our senate,” Greene said. “Our president is even sworn in with his hand on a Bible.”

Klusman spoke after Greene. She said the commissioners’ decision to appeal wasn’t solely a move to protect practicing Christians, but all faith traditions around the world.

Pierce spoke for the shortest amount of time compared to any other commissioner. After an hour and a half of debate, including public comments, Pierce spoke for just a few seconds before stating how he would vote.

“I made my decision two years ago when the former board decided to move forward with this issue, and it hasn’t changed,” Pierce said. “So, I will be voting for an appeal.”

Pierce officially made the motion to appeal Beaty’s ruling. Greene seconded Pierce’s motion.

Some unhappy 

Immediately following the commissioners’ vote, the American Civil Liberties Union released a statement criticizing commissioners’ actions.

The ACLU’s Legal Director Chris Brook said commissioners would continue defending a discriminatory and unconstitutional policy by voting for an appeal.

“Rowan County residents should be able to attend public meetings without being coerced into participating in a government-sponsored prayer or fearing that they may be discriminated against for having different beliefs than the commissioners,” Brook said. “We will continue to make our arguments in court in order to ensure that public meetings in Rowan County strive to be welcoming to all members of the community.”

The ACLU represents plaintiffs Nan Lund, Liesa Montag-Siegel and Robert Voelker in the lawsuit against Rowan County.

Most attendees who spoke during Monday’s meeting didn’t focus on discrimination as a reason to drop the lawsuit. Rowan County Democratic Party Chairman Geoffrey Hoy, a retired Lutheran pastor, said commissioners should focus on issues associated with governing instead of focusing on the prayer suit.

“We have many good religious leaders here in Rowan County who pray very well,” Hoy said. “We need (commissioners) to continue to be good government leaders for our county.”

He mentioned the fiscal year 2016 budget as one way county commissioners could focus on good government.

Potential costs of proceeding with a lawsuit were also mentioned by speakers against an appeal.

Small added cost

Rowan County Commissioners’ decision to appeal won’t immediately affect the budget in any large way.

County Attorney Jay Dees said the county would have to pay a $500 filing fee to appeal the case in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit. The Gibbs Firm, based in Texas, hasn’t charged Rowan County for representation to date. Dees said that practice is expected to continue on the circuit court level.

Edds said commissioners wouldn’t spend “any county time or any county dollars” on the prayer suit following the appeal vote. With an appeal, the county won’t have to immediately pay attorneys fees and legal costs outlined in Beaty’s ruling.

If it loses an appeal, however, Rowan County would be responsible for any legal fees. Edds said he has reached out to the N.C. Partnership for Religious Liberty, which raised money to pay legal costs in Forsyth County’s case, to inquire if the group would pay any of Rowan’s legal fees.

Multiple speakers in support of Rowan’s appeal mentioned the possibility of their church or group contributing to pay for legal fees.

Rowan County staff provided an official copy of an appeal on Monday. The appeal is dated June 2.

Contact reporter Josh Bergeron at 704-797-4246.