Prayer lawsuit attorneys argue in federal appeals court

Published 12:21 pm Wednesday, January 27, 2016

By Josh Bergeron

RICHMOND, Va. — Attorneys on both sides of Rowan County’s prayer lawsuit on Wednesday presented oral arguments to a three-judge panel in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit.

The focus of Rowan’s prayer lawsuit is the constitutionality of County Commissioners’ prayer practices at the start of meetings. The case first began in 2013 in North Carolina’s Middle District Court, where the prayer practices were ruled unconstitutional. Commissioners voted to appeal the ruling in June 2015.

Rowan County on Wednesday was represented in federal appeals court by attorneys associated with Texas-based National Center for Life and Liberty. Plaintiffs Nan Lund, Robert Voelker and Lisa Montag-Siegel were represented in court by the American Civil Liberties Union.

Rowan County’s attorneys went first in oral arguments. They were given an initial 15 minutes to address complaints by the plaintiffs. Later they received additional time for a rebuttal.

Allyson Ho, an attorney for Rowan, focused part of her argument on whether the identity of a prayer giver — County Commissioners in this case — mattered. Ho said identity didn’t matter.

The identity of the prayer giver has gained greater significance in the ACLU’s arguments following Town of Greece vs. Galloway, a Supreme Court case permitting volunteer chaplains to give an opening invocation.

Ho also emphasized the long-standing tradition of prayer before legislative meetings.

ACLU North Carolina Legal Director Christopher Brook, representing the plaintiffs, was given about 30 minutes for oral arguments. A major point in Brook’s argument focused on whether commissioners directed members of the public to participate. He cited a few examples of past prayers that appeared to be for the benefit of and directed at members of the public instead of only county commissioners. Brook called commissioners’ prayers coercive because they were, at times, directed at members of the public.

During oral arguments, Ho told judges 100 percent of Rowan County Commissioners’ prayers from 2007 to 2013 were overtly Christian. U.S. Judge J. Harvie Wilkinson repeatedly said he was concerned about the combination of legislators giving every prayer with 100 percent of prayers being Christian.

The other two judges — G. Steven Agee and Dennis Shedd — didn’t overtly discuss how they felt about issues in the case.

Judges didn’t rule on the case during Wednesday’s day in court. A ruling, however, is the most likely next step in the case. It’s unclear when a ruling might be issued.

Plaintiffs Nan Lund and Robert Voelker attended Wednesday’s oral arguments. County Commissioners Chairman Greg Edds also attended.

Edds didn’t express an opinion on the details of Wednesday’s oral arguments, but said he thought attorneys representing Rowan County did well. Edds said judges had also clearly studied the case extensively.

A full story will appear in Thursday’s Salisbury Post.