Money important in prayer lawsuit for commissioner candidates

Published 12:05 am Thursday, March 3, 2016

By Josh Bergeron

If others foot the bill, Rowan’s prayer case may not end in the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals, according to county commissioner candidates.

The suit, filed in 2013 by the American Civil Liberties Union, questions whether elected officials are able to pray before meetings and if attendees are coerced to participate in prayers. A federal judge ruled against Rowan in district court. Appeals court judges heard oral arguments in January, but aren’t required to issue a ruling by a certain date. A three-judge panel could issue its decision next week, next month or in several months.

Depending on when judges issue a ruling, county commissioner candidates could be faced with a decision to appeal. Two of Rowan’s three Republican candidates for commissioner — Johnny Love and Craig Pierce — said they’d vote against a second appeal if county government has to pay court costs. Incumbent Mike Caskey said the county likely won’t have to pay court costs.

“There hasn’t been a lot of financial costs to the county at this point,” he said. “If there were to be some sort of judgement against the county, and I don’t know what that would be, I think it would probably be covered.”

He said church groups have expressed interest in paying court costs.

So far, Rowan has only paid a few thousand dollars to County Attorney Jay Dees shortly after the lawsuit’s filing. Attorneys in Rowan’s case work for a Texas-based law firm representing Rowan County for free.

A circuit court judgement, for example, could order Rowan County to pay court costs of the plaintiffs. In a U.S. District Court ruling, Rowan was ordered to pay $1 in damages. The ruling also allowed plaintiffs to pursue attorneys fees and costs. Caskey said the ACLU will likely cite attorneys fees “in the hundreds of thousands” but the final costs will be notably less.

“Who knows what’s going to happen,” Caskey said about the prayer case. “I’ve been to court many times where you think you’ve won a case and something crazy happens. I’ll have to see what the options are, but I’m 100 percent in favor of continuing.”

He said the case should be seen as one about free speech rather than religion.

If elected, Love said he’s not in favor of spending “a single taxpayer dollar” on continuing the prayer lawsuit. Love said he doesn’t believe elected officials should force beliefs on constituents. Love, Caskey and Pierce are all Christians.

“You can have morals and live in a way that we consider a good life without being a Christian,” Love said. “If it came down to it, and (the lawsuit) was going to cost anything to continue, I would not want to proceed. I do not feel like we should use any taxpayer dollars to fight the lawsuit.”

Instead of fighting the lawsuit, Love said, commissioners could choose to have a moment of silence before meetings or pray in a non-sectarian way.

If private donations pay for court costs, however, Love said he would agree to appeal Rowan’s prayer lawsuit a second time.

Pierce said he’s unsure what the costs might be, but funding would be a significant consideration when deciding whether to continue with the suit.

“At that point in time, it gets to the point where we ask ‘how far do we take this and spend the taxpayers’ dollars,'” Pierce said. “Our legal counsel has been pro-bono so far. It hasn’t been a big expense, but I’m not sure what the expenses would be going forward.”

When asked, Pierce said the prayer lawsuit isn’t among the top issues in Rowan County. It’s something commissioners only deal with “every few months,” Pierce said.

“It’s just not something we have daily conversation about,” he said. “There’s lots of things we’re doing to bring a better economic atmosphere. I don’t want to minimize it. People know how I feel about the prayer issue, but it’s not something we talk about very often.”

If the circuit court rules against commissioners, it would be the second ruling against commissioners’ prayer practices — a point Pierce mentioned.

A second appeal wouldn’t necessarily be to the U.S. Supreme Court. In fact, multiple commissioner candidates said the Supreme Court is unlikely to take up the case. Instead, commissioners or plaintiffs could ask for an en banc appeal, which is when all judges hear the case at the circuit level hear the case, not just a panel.

Contact reporter Josh Bergeron at 704-797-4246.