Commissioners to discuss prayer lawsuit’s future

Published 2:36 pm Tuesday, August 22, 2017

By Josh Bergeron

SALISBURY – Out-of-state attorneys will meet with the Rowan County commissioners next week to discuss the ongoing prayer lawsuit in federal court.

The meeting is scheduled for 1 p.m. Monday on the second floor of the county administration building, 130 W. Innes St. Only the start of the meeting will be open to the public. Commissioners will discuss the prayer lawsuit — Lund v. Rowan County — and related legal matters in closed session.

Monday’s meeting comes as the commissioners weigh whether to appeal a July ruling by the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals. By a 10-5 vote, the full 4th Circuit ruled that the Rowan County commissioners violated the U.S. Constitution by routinely starting their meetings with Christian prayers from 2007 to 2013. Commissioners delivered the prayers instead of a volunteer chaplain — the current practice.

The 4th Circuit’s majority opinion said Rowan County identified itself with one religion and risked conveying a message of exclusion. The commissioners went too far in offering sectarian prayers, the court said.

Meanwhile, a nearly identical case is working its way through the 6th Circuit. That case concerns a group of county commissioners in Michigan. The Rowan County commissioners say they are closely watching the 6th Circuit case. If the 6th Circuit finds the Michigan commissioners’ prayer practices to be constitutional, that would create a district split and could increase the likelihood that the U.S. Supreme Court will agree to hear Rowan County’s case.

Commissioners Chairman Greg Edds said he doesn’t expect the commissioners to make a decision Monday about whether to appeal the 4th Circuit ruling.

“It’s going to be an opportunity where we can just sit down with the attorneys and find out where we’ve been and how the 6th Circuit case relates to ours,” Edds said.

The Monday meeting will include David Gibbs, an attorney handling Rowan County’s case and president of the National Center for Life and Liberty. Edds said attorney Allyson Ho, who made oral arguments for Rowan County in the 4th Circuit, is also scheduled to attend.

The National Center of Life and Liberty is representing Rowan County at no cost in the case. The ACLU of North Carolina is representing three Rowan County residents who filed the lawsuit.

At Monday’s meeting, Edds said, the commissioners will discuss timelines for appeal and the possibility of extending the time in which Rowan County can appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.

“We are really interested in that 6th Circuit decision,” Edds said.

It’s unclear when the 6th Circuit might render its ruling. As in the Rowan County case, a three-judge panel heard the Michigan case before the full slate of judges agreed to hear it in an en banc review.

One major difference between the two cases is that the 6th Circuit’s three-judge panel found the prayer practices in the Michigan case to be unconstitutional. The district split would occur if the full 6th Circuit finds the prayer practices in Michigan to be constitutional.

Commissioners Craig Pierce and Mike Caskey have said they are willing to appeal the case to the U.S. Supreme Court. One more commissioner is needed to proceed with an appeal.

Asked Tuesday, Edds said he was not able to say what his decision might be.

“What I would say is that we will have all the information we need to make a decision (on Monday),” he said.

Contact reporter Josh Bergeron at 704-797-4246.