Fourth Circuit Says, “No,” to Prayers by Rowan County Commissioners

Sitting en banc in Lund v. Rowan County, the US Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit overruled a previous decision by a three judge panel. The Court found that:

For years on end, the elected members of the county’s Board of Commissioners composed and delivered pointedly sectarian invocations. They rotated the prayer opportunity amongst themselves; no one else was permitted to offer an invocation. The prayers referenced one and only one faith and veered from time to time into overt proselytization. Before each invocation, attendees were requested to rise and often asked to pray with the commissioners. The prayers served to open meetings of our most basic unit of government and directly preceded the business session of the meeting. The district court, applying the Supreme Court’s decision in Town of Greece v. Galloway … held the county’s prayer practice unconstitutional. A panel of this court reversed.

And concluded that:

The Constitution does not allow what happened in Rowan County. 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.

But nevertheless affirmed the constitutionality of more inclusive invocations:

The great promise of the Establishment Clause is that religion will not operate as an instrument of division in our nation. Consistent with this principle, there is a time- honored tradition of legislative prayer that reflects the respect of each faith for other faiths and the aspiration, common to so many creeds, of finding higher meaning and deeper purpose in these fleeting moments each of us spends upon this earth. Instead of drawing on this tradition, Rowan County elevated one religion above all others and aligned itself with that faith. It need not be so. As the history of legislative invocations demonstrates, the desire of this good county for prayer at the opening of its public sessions can be realized in many ways that further both religious exercise and religious tolerance.

Jon Guze / Director of Legal Studies

Jon Guze is the Director of Legal Studies at the John Locke Foundation. Before joining the John Locke Foundation, Jon practiced law in Durham, North Carolina for over twent...

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