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Nonprofits file opposition to Rowan’s prayer practices

Rowan County now has official court opposition to its previous prayer practices.

Nine nonprofit advocacy groups this week signed onto an amicus brief asking the U.S. Fourth Circuit Appeals Court to declare Rowan County Commissioners’ previous prayer practices unconstitutional.

In early August, 18 members of congress and 13 attorneys general issued their support for sectarian prayer during Rowan County Commissioners meetings. The latest amicus brief is the first time groups have officially opposed Rowan’s previous sectarian prayer in the form of court documents.

Americans United for Separation of Church and State, based in Washington D.C., acts as the lead agency on this week’s amicus brief.

Amicus briefs are commonly used in court cases for third-party groups or individuals to express support or disfavor with a party in a court case.

Americans United filed its brief Wednesday.

In the brief, Washington D.C. attorney Gregory Lipper writes: “When a citizen visibly participates in a commissioner’s prayer — or visibly does not — and then stands up just a few minutes later to request a business license, a zoning variance or improvements to an important public service, the commissioners will know whether or not that citizen is an insider who shares the commissioners’ faith and participates in the commissioners’ religious ritual.”

Lipper wrote meeting attendees have two options: participate in a prayer that violates his or her conscious or risk the commissioners’ disfavor.

Other groups listed on the amicus brief include: the American Humanist Association, based in Washington D.C.; the Anti-Defamation League, in New York; The Center for Inquiry, in New York; The Freedom from Religion Foundation, in Wisconsin; The Interfaith Alliance Fund, in D.C.; The Sikh Coalition, in New York; The Union for Reform Judaism, in New York; and The Woman of Reform Judaism.

Lipper is representing all nine groups.

Americans United spokesman Rob Boston said the organization circulated the amicus brief with “allied groups” and invited various organizations to join. Boston said it made sense for eight groups to join his organization because they agreed on the argument.

Lipper’s three arguments in the brief include: commissioners directing citizens to participate in Christian prayers, commissioners making decisions directly affecting citizens after praying and the meeting setting putting pressure on attendees to participate in prayers.

Local government meetings often take place in small, intimate spaces, Lipper writes.

“Attendees, including those in Rowan County, usually sit facing the panel of officials conducting the meeting,” he writes in the amicus brief. ” Unlike audience members sitting in a secluded legislative gallery, attendees at Rowan County meetings know that the commissioners can easily determine who is joining in their prayers and who is sitting out.”

Lipper said the setting “leads the commissioners to treat citizens at worshippers rather than passive audience members.”

In meetings following a June 2 vote to appeal a lower court ruling, commissioners have significantly changed proceedings before and during prayers.

A chaplain, appointed by commissioners, gives opening invocations. During meetings proceeding the June 2 vote, prayers have included specifically sectarian words — Jesus, for example.

Before the prayer, Commissioners Chairman Greg Edds tells attendees they have an option to exit the room or not stand for prayers. Rarely, if ever, do attendees exit the meeting room or remain seated during prayers.

Rowan County’s prayer lawsuit — Lund vs. Rowan County — began in the U.S. Middle District Court for North Carolina. U.S. District Court Judge James Beaty in May ruled that commissioners’ prayer practices were unconstitutional.

Contact reporter Josh Bergeron at 705-797-4246.

 

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