Rowan gains support from federal officials, other states in prayer lawsuit

Published 12:15 am Wednesday, August 5, 2015

Rowan County Commissioners now have the support of 13 attorneys general and 18 former or current members of Congress in a lawsuit that challengers the constitutionality of prayer during meetings.

Led by West Virginia Attorney General Patrick Morrisey, 13 states signed onto an amicus brief asking for Rowan County Commissioners’ prayer practices to be declared constitutional. Similarly, U.S. Rep. Richard Hudson, R-8, led a bipartisan group of 17 other lawmakers in signing onto an amicus brief supporting Rowan. Both documents were filed with the U.S. Fourth Circuit Court on Monday.

In federal courts, amicus briefs are common. They serve as statements of support for one party or another.

In Rowan’s case, both amicus briefs ask the U.S. Fourth Circuit Court to reverse a lower court ruling that declared prayers led by Rowan County Commissioners unconstitutional. The congressional amicus brief also asks the court to lift an injunction on Rowan County Commissioners leading prayer.

“Prayer has long been an integral part of American government at all levels, uniting us all across diverse backgrounds, party lines and seemingly impossible odds,” Hudson said. “As a defender of our constitutional rights, I will continue to do all that I can to protect religious liberty and stand up for our right to pray.”

All three members of the House of Representatives with districts in Rowan — Rep. Alma Adams, D-12; Rep. Virginia Foxx, R-5; and Hudson, signed onto support Rowan County in its lawsuit. Hudson said he personally asked Adams and Foxx to support the amicus briefs because their districts extend into Rowan.

Hudson cited the fact that the U.S. Congress always opens with a prayer as as reason that Rowan County Commissioners should also be able to pray.

Reps. G.K. Butterfield, D-1, Renee Ellmers, R-2, and David Price, D-4, were the only members of the U.S. House of Representatives not to sign the amicus brief. Sen. Richard Burr, R-NC, also didn’t sign onto the resolution. All other members of Congress representing North Carolina are listed as supporting the amicus brief. Democrat and former N.C. Rep. Mike McIntyre is also listed.

Members of congress from South Carolina, Virginia, Maryland and Oklahoma supported the amicus brief.

Attorneys general listed as supporting Rowan County in its lawsuit include: Luther Strange, of Alabama; Mark Brnovich, of Arizona; Leslie Rutledge, of Arkansas; Pamela Jo Bondi, of Florida; Gregory Zoeller, of Indiana; Bill Schuette, of Michigan; Douglas Peterson, of Nebraska; Adam Paul Laxalt, of Nevada; Michael Dewine, of Ohio; E. Scott Pruitt, of Oklahoma; Alan Wilson, of South Carolina; and Ken Paxton, of Texas.

All attorneys general listed on the amicus brief are Republicans.

Both amicus briefs cite Supreme Court case Town of Greece v. Galloway extensively. In North Carolina’s Middle District Court, where Rowan’s prayer was ruled unconstitutional, Judge James A. Beaty said the board’s practice of having commissioners lead prayer at meetings created a “coercive setting” and violated the Establishment Clause of the Constitution. Because all of Rowan County’s commissioners were Christian when the suit was filed, the prayers often referred to Jesus.

Beaty cited the Town of Greece case as a reason for his ruling.

The amicus brief from the 13 attorneys general argues Beaty made an erroneous conclusion.

“In the District Court’s view, the fact that the lawmakers themselves delivered the prayers at meetings of the Rowan County Board of Commissioners was a ‘crucial distinction (that) matters under the Establishment Clause,'” the amicus brief states. “That bright-line conclusion does not square with a proper reading of either Marsh or Town of Greece.”

A majority of the Amicus brief from the attorneys general compares the identity of the prayer giver across the U.S. Fourth Circuit. It lists 59 of 100 North Carolina counties where lawmakers, such as a commissioner, leads opening prayers.

“Lawmaker-led prayer is fully consistent with what the Supreme Court has recognized to be the purpose of legislative prayer,” the brief states.

The congressional amicus brief, a shorter document, covers a wider range of topics. One of its sections, however, specifically argues that the identity of the prayer giver is not important.

“In keeping with this tradition of elected and public officials engaging in religious and public officials engaging in religious speech and exercise — which extends back to the founding — this court has continuously refused to assign controlling weight to the identity of the prayer giver,” the brief states.

Rowan County Commissioners Chairman Greg Edds, said he was aware of the amicus briefs in support of prayer practices. Edds said the briefs are further validation that commissioners made the right decision when they unanimously voted to appeal the North Carolina Middle District Court’s ruling.

“It’s just not surprising to me,” Edds said. “The Obama administration even filed an amicus brief in the Greece, N.Y. case specifically saying the government had no right or interest in censoring prayer.”

Since the ruling, Rowan County Commissioners have asked Sheriff’s Office Chaplain Michael Taylor to give opening invocations. Commissioners have refrained from praying during meetings.

Contact reporter Josh Bergeron at 704-797-4246.