Two worlds collide on Rowan prayer issue

Published 6:49 pm Monday, November 20, 2017

FRANKFORT, Ky. — My reporting past and current job collided this week when Gov. Matt Bevin signed onto an amicus brief supporting a lawsuit about public prayer.

On behalf of the commonwealth of Kentucky, Bevin joined 21 other states in support of prayer practices before county commissioners meetings in Rowan County, N.C. The case — Lund v. Rowan County — has been appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court. I covered the case for more than three years — even traveling to Richmond, Virginia, twice for oral arguments — as a reporter in Salisbury, N.C.

All of the officials who signed onto the recent brief, except Bevin, were attorneys general of their states.

“Intervention is critical to resolve the disagreement in the lower courts and to preserve the ability of state and local legislative bodies to accommodate the spiritual needs of lawmakers,” the brief states. “This court should grant review to provide certainty for the thousands of state and local governments that have long allowed lawmaker-led prayer in their proceedings.”

So what did Bevin agree to support?

The commissioners in Rowan County, North Carolina, have offered sectarian prayers before their meetings for decades. Lawmakers led the prayers, which were mostly Christian.

The lawsuit started in 2013 when three residents sued the county commissioners. It involves questions about whether lawmakers themselves can offer sectarian prayers, if  commissioners proselytized or attempted to convert attendees and if commissioners coerced attendees to participate. The suit specifically questions prayers that occurred between 2007 and 2013.

At the U.S. District Court level, a judge ruled that the prayer practices were unconstitutional. Then, a three-judge panel at the circuit court level ruled by a 2-1 count that the prayer practices were OK. The prayer practices were, again, ruled unconstitutional when all 15 judges in the 4th Circuit reviewed the case — an en banc review.

Feeling good about their chances of winning if the U.S. Supreme Court agrees to take the case, Rowan County commissioners in October appealed the latest ruling.

Now, without question, interest groups will line up behind their preferred side.

Joining Bevin in supporting Rowan County were the attorneys general of the following states: West Virginia, Alabama, Arizona, Arkansas, Colorado, Georgia, Indiana, Kansas, Louisiana, Michigan, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, Ohio, Oklahoma, South Carolina, South Dakota, Texas, Utah and Wisconsin.

Bevin’s office issued a news release that only quoted the brief and excluded any sort of statement from the governor.

“Lawmaker-led prayer is a common and important form of legislative prayer, which connects lawmakers to a tradition dating to the time of the Framers and allows part-time and volunteer lawmakers to reflect the values they hold as private citizens,” the brief stated.

Meanwhile, attorneys representing three Rowan County residents who initially sued the county claim that prayer practices do not fit within well-established precedents and that Rowan County commissioners are promoting one religion over others.

It’s unclear exactly when we’ll know if the U.S. Supreme Court takes the prayer lawsuit, but it’s a near certainty that Bevin and the attorneys general of 21 states won’t be the only ones lining up to choose sides in the case.

Former Salisbury Post reporter Josh Bergeron is managing editor of The State Journal in Frankfort, Ky.