Editorial: Victory not certain in prayer lawsuit

Published 12:10 am Wednesday, September 21, 2016

A Fourth Circuit Court decision announced this week is a clear victory for Rowan County commissioners’ individual freedom of speech. But the legal battle is far from over, and the issues at stake are extremely complex.

The ACLU filed the lawsuit against the county in 2013 on behalf of three non-Christian residents who took issue with commissioners’ practice of opening each meeting with a sectarian prayer — that is, a Christian prayer.

The Fourth Circuit decision overruled a 2015 ruling by Judge James Beaty of North Carolina’s Middle District Court. Beaty had ruled that commissioners’ prayer practice creates a “coercive setting” and violates the Establishment Clause of the Constitution. “When all faiths but those of the five elected Commissioners are excluded, the policy inherently discriminates and disfavors religious minorities,” Beaty said.

The county appealed and, when the case reached the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond, the focus shifted to the commissioners’ rights. Writing for the majority, Judge G. Steven Agee said the commissioners’ prayers fit within the longstanding tradition of lawmaker-led prayer. It’s not as though the board officially crafted the prayer, he said; each commissioner composed his or her own. And, in Agee’s eyes at least, those prayers are for the sole benefit of the board, even though people in the audience are asked to stand, and even when commissioners call for divine protection of others, such as police and the military.

Rowan County is overwhelmingly Christian, and many Christians are indignant that anyone would question this practice. But both Judge Beaty and Fourth Circuit Judge J. Harvie Wilkinson, writing in dissent, cite the American principle of respect for all. Wilkinson said the ruling was unfortunate for “a nation whose surpassing orthodoxy belongs in its constitutional respect for all beliefs and faiths.”   

Everyone should have the right to pray when and where they want — or not pray, if they choose. Public officials act as more than individuals, though. They are the government, and they step on thin ice if their invocations can be construed as an official act imposed on others whether they like it or not, with consequences for those who do not participate. The rulings to date appear to seesaw back and forth between the rights of a diverse public and the rights of individual commissioners who all happen to be Christian. The common ground is freedom. The challenge is how to ensure freedom and respect for all.