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Federal court hears case on prayer in Rowan County government

The 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals heard a case regarding legislative prayer in public meetings in Rowan County, North Carolina on March 22. 

Four years ago, three Rowan County residents, Nan Lund, Robert Voelker and Liesa Montag-Siegel, filed a case against the Commissioner’s Office for opening its government meetings with commissioner-led sectarian prayers of a single religion. 

The state chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union is representing the three residents in Lund v. Rowan County.

“For years, commissioners were opening their meetings by directing members of the public to stand up and join them in prayers,” said Mike Meno, spokesperson of the state ACLU. “And virtually all of them were specific to one religion — Christianity.” 

In Greece v. Galloway, a case decided in 2014, the Supreme Court ruled the practice of non-sectarian legislative prayer — that doesn't disparage other religions — constitutional. 

A major difference between these cases is the commissioners of Rowan County rotate among themselves to deliver the prayers, instead of using a local clergy member.

“The Supreme Court has expressly approved every feature of the county’s legislative prayer practice save one — that the legislators pray,” said Allyson Ho, the Rowan County Commissioners' attorney. 

The ACLU said when elected government officials lead the prayers, it violates the Establishment Clause of the U.S. Constitution, which prohibits the government from establishing a single religion. 

“We all have the right to religious freedom and that is a deeply held American value. But when you are a public official and you are presiding over public business, you are not doing so simply as a private individual,” Meno said. 

Greg Edds, chairperson of the Rowan County Commissioners, said the practice of commissioner-led prayer does not violate the Establishment Clause because the prayers are directed towards commissioners and not to the public audience.

“They are said at the beginning to bring solemnity to the meeting, to kind of focus everybody and to ask for wisdom as legislators as they’re making decisions,” Edds said. “They are just asking for wisdom.”

Craig Pierce, a commissioner who was on the Rowan County Commissioners board when the lawsuit was filed, said the majority of the prayers spoken during the meetings represented denominations of the Christian faith, simply because elected officials were Christian. 

“We are in the Bible Belt down here in North Carolina and at the time, the majority of everyone on the board was of the Christian faith,” Pierce said. “We were simply praying in the way that we had always done … We weren’t promoting a religion.”

He said the decision to be in the rotation to say a prayer, and the content of the prayer, was up to the commissioners as well.

But Meno said the practice of government officials delivering prayers of a single faith has made some residents of Rowan County feel ostracized during the public meetings.

“All our clients want is for Rowan County to be a place that is welcoming to people of all beliefs,” he said. 

But as a commissioner, Pierce conducted his prayers differently. 

“Every time I prayed it was very direct … and I always said, 'in the name of my personal Lord and Savior.’ I said that emphatically, to make sure people understood I was not promoting … it was what I personally thought," Pierce said. 

The circuit court will decide whether the deliverer of a prayer changes a legislative prayer from establishment to a non-establishment religion under the first amendment in the upcoming months.

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