Commissioners approach the end of ACLU lawsuit

Published 12:00 am Friday, January 4, 2019

SALISBURY — Looking ahead at, potentially, the last business item concerning the ACLU prayer lawsuit, Rowan County commissioners and staff give the same response. A pause. A sigh.

Then comes the inhale: “Well, it’s over,” County Attorney Jay Dees said.

The issue will come at the Monday commissioners meeting. During closed session, the board will look at an ACLU-filed court petition for attorney fees amassed over the lawsuit’s five years.

The case began in March 2013, when the national ACLU Program of Freedom of Religion and Belief and the ACLU of North Carolina filed a lawsuit challenging commissioner-led, Christian prayer practices at the start of every meeting. The groups filed the suit on behalf of three Rowan County residents: Nan Lund, Liesa Montag-Siegel and Robert Voelker.

The National Center for Life and Liberty, a nonprofit legal ministry, represented Rowan without charge.

Plenty of back and forth was to follow. Rowan’s prayer practices were declared unconstitutional in 2015 by a District Court in North Carolina. Then, in 2016, a three-judge panel found the practices constitutional by a 2-1 count.

When the entire 4th Circuit Court of Appeals found the practices unconstitutional by a count of 10-5, the commissioners made one final appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court. The nation’s highest court declined to take the case in late June — the end of the road for Rowan.

The loss gave the prevailing party — the ACLU — a right to petition for reimbursement of attorney’s fees, Dees said.

Dees was unable on Thursday to provide the figure the county could pay. A similar lawsuit in Forsyth County resulted in attorney’s fees of more than $225,000, he said.

But the commissioners could hypothetically be presented with a bill of as much as $500,000, considering the length of the case, he said.

During Monday’s closed session, the commissioners will evaluate the requested number and look for a potential resolution — a sort of settlement between the two parties worked out through consent order.

It’s similar to the process with a local petition for fees, Dees said.

“When someone submits a petition for fees, the judge may look at it and say, ‘I think these fees here were for redundant services. This was too high for the level of work. There were too many hours spent here on an issue that was fairly simple,'” Dees said.

But no matter the amount, the fees will not be acceptable to the Rowan County commissioners, Edds said.

“We’re still disappointed, and the issue is still very much alive. It will have to decided by some county; it just won’t be Rowan County,” Edds said.

Commissioner Judy Klusman agreed, saying she is confident the case for commissioner-led prayer will be heard eventually by the Supreme Court.

“The thing that really disturbs me is that no matter what the county would have done, we’d be paying the ACLU money,” Klusman said. “I just hate that it’s going to be taxpayer money going to pay for this. I’d much rather have that money go into schools.”

According to Edds, the fees will likely be pulled from the county’s “very, very healthy fund balance that has increased significantly over the past four years.”

Klusman said she also feels it important that county residents know the previous and current commissions did not start the years-long battle. “This was a lawsuit that was brought against the county.”

And Commissioner Craig Pierce added, “When someone puts a lawsuit on you, if you don’t defend it, you automatically lose.”

“Had we not tried to defend it, we might not have been able to have any kind of prayer before meetings,” Pierce said. “At least now we have more of a clarification of what can we do and what can we do in the future.”

The commissioners will meet at 3 p.m. Monday on the second floor of the Rowan County Administration Building, 130 W. Innes St. Should a consent order be reached, they will re-enter open session to vote on the agreed-upon amount.