A North Carolina appeals court has handed a big victory to the First Amendment.
The Freedom From Religion Foundation had signed on to a friend-of-the-court brief filed in 2015 with the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals asking the court to strike down the Rowan County Board of Commissioners' practice of coercing citizens to participate in Christian prayers at its meetings. Since at least November 2007, Rowan County officials opened their meetings with Christian prayers nearly 100 percent of the time. These Christian prayers, by the commissioners themselves, repeatedly referenced "Jesus" and "the Savior."
The commissioners also instructed attendees to join in those prayers.
U.S. District Court Judge James A. Beaty in May 2015 had ruled that Rowan County's prayer practice was a constitutional problem. The commissioners appealed that decision, and a three-judge panel of the appeals court ruled in their favor last year. But on Friday, July 14, the full bench of the 4th Circuit Appeals court resoundingly ruled 10-5 that the Rowan County commissioners were violating the Constitution.
"We conclude that the Constitution does not allow what happened in Rowan County," states the ruling. "The prayer practice served to identify the government with Christianity and risked conveying to citizens of minority faiths a message of exclusion. And because the commissioners were the exclusive prayer-givers, Rowan County's invocation practice falls well outside the more inclusive, minister-oriented practice of legislative prayer described in Town of Greece. Indeed, if elected representatives invite their constituents to participate in prayers invoking a single faith for meeting upon meeting, year after year, it is difficult to imagine constitutional limits to sectarian prayer practice."
The court's judgment closely followed the language of the brief that secular groups filed.
In the recent Supreme Court case Greece v. Galloway, upholding legislative prayer in some cases, "the court did not write [local] governments a blank check to impose religion on unwilling citizens," the brief opened. The commissioners' practices "put intolerable pressure on citizens — including religious minorities and nonbelievers — to violate their conscience by participating in Christian religious exercises."
Americans United for Separation of Church and State authored the brief. In addition to FFRF, it was joined by the American Humanist Association, Anti-Defamation League, Center for Inquiry, Interfaith Alliance Foundation, Sikh Coalition, Union for Reform Judaism and Women of Reform Judaism.
"We are overjoyed that the 4th Circuit gave a constitutionally correct ruling," says FFRF Co-President Dan Barker. "With the Rowan County commissioners being so blatant in their violations, it could have been no other way."
FFRF is a national nonprofit organization with more than 29,000 nonreligious members and chapters all across the country, including 600-plus and a chapter in North Carolina. Its purpose is to protect the constitutional principle of separation between state and church.