Rowan County commissioners to pay $285,000 after losing prayer lawsuit

Published 6:57 pm Monday, January 7, 2019

By Josh Bergeron

Rowan County commissioners will pay $285,000 in legal fees out of a savings fund to foot the bill for a lawsuit about prayer at the start of meetings.

With little fanfare, commissioners on Monday unanimously approved the payment in conjunction with a court order issued Dec. 21. The payment will be made to the ACLU, which has represented Rowan County residents Nan Lund, Liesa Montag-Siegel and Robert Voelker in a suit over commissioners’ prayer practices from 2007 to 2013.

The case specifically focused on commissioners’ ability to give sectarian prayers and the manner in which the prayers were delivered. The suit worked its way through federal courts until all 15 judges for the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals in 2017 ruled by a 10-5 count that the prayers were unconstitutional. Commissioners asked the U.S. Supreme Court to take the case, but the nation’s highest court declined to do so in June 2018, upholding the lower court ruling.

Fees awarded to attorneys for Lund, Montag-Siegel and Voelker represent the only significant costs to county government in the suit, as commissioners were represented for free by the National Center for Life and Liberty. The fees will be paid from the county’s fund balance, which is partially a savings fund.

“We are obviously very unhappy with this and I think a few of us are, probably, physically sick to our stomach that we have to do this, but this is the risk that we took,” County Commissioners Chairman Greg Edds told the Salisbury Post.

Asked about the effect of the withdrawal from the fund balance, Edds pointed to a financial audit presented Monday, which showed Rowan County’s total fund balance increased by $325,158 from the 2017 fiscal year to the 2018 fiscal year. The county’s unassigned fund balance — which can be used for any purpose, including funding general government operations in tough times — increased by $187,934 to a total of $18.28 million during the same period.

Edds called the ACLU “bullies” for its role in the Rowan County prayer suit as well as other lawsuits, particularly those in which small communities have been involved. Though, Edds did not cite other specific lawsuit examples.

“They make a living in going after other small communities in federal courts that are sympathetic to their leanings and they have almost unlimited funding that scares small communities to death,” Edds said. “So, communities just fold.”

By fighting the suit and twice voting unanimously to appeal rulings to a higher court, Edds said, commissioners weren’t simply fighting for their ability to give sectarian prayers before meetings. Commissioners “stood up for” elected officials of all faiths, he said.

“This was about elected officials, regardless of their faith tradition, being able to exercise their First Amendment rights,” he said. “We’ve said over and over that, as people of different faiths earn their ability to take these seats, that we would respect their right to provide any prayer that they want to do.”

Monday’s vote, effectively, spells the end of the prayer lawsuit, which was brought by Lund, Montag-Siegel and Voelker more than five years ago.

In a similar case, the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that commissioners in Jackson County, Michigan, did not violate the constitution by offering prayers at the start of meetings. Like Rowan County’s suit, the Supreme Court in 2018 declined to take an appeal of the 6th Circuit case. Edds said that decision leaves in place two different precedents in different parts of the country. Eventually, the matter of sectarian prayer by elected officials before government meetings will be resolved, but Rowan County won’t get its money back, Edds said.

County Attorney Jay Dees said legal precedent was in Rowan County’s favor and the many letters of support submitted to federal courts — known as amicus briefs — were proof of that.

“It’s important to note that (Rowan County) was not the underdog, wasting money and tilting at windmills,” Dees said. “And, I believe that given another year or two, there will be another decision that makes its way to the Supreme Court.”

In a statement provided to the Salisbury Post, the North Carolina ACLU said it was glad courts agreed with its clients and, ultimately, ruled in their favor.

“As Judge (J. Harvie) Wilkinson wrote in this case, ‘Free religious exercise can only remain free if not influenced and directed by the hand of the state,’” the ACLU said.

Moving forward, Rowan County will continue to use a volunteer chaplain. At present, that’s Rowan County Sheriff’s Office Chaplain Michael Taylor. Edds said commissioners have not discussed changing to a different chaplain.

County Attorney Jay Dees said commissioners could look at ways to offer prayers before meetings within the bounds of court decisions, but Edds said commissioners would not opt to do so.