RALEIGH — Monday’s Supreme Court decision will not change much about prayer before political meetings in North Carolina, where many town councils and other political bodies begin with prayers that mention either a generic god or the name of Jesus Christ.
But the decision was a blow to the American Civil Liberties Union of North Carolina’s efforts to stop the invocation of Jesus’ name in Rowan County. The group’s executive director Jennifer Rudinger called the decision a “disappointing setback.”
“We strongly disagree with today’s 5-4 decision,” Rudinger said. “Opening government meetings with prayers from a specific religious viewpoint tells citizens with different beliefs that they are not welcome.”
The ACLU of North Carolina Legal Foundation in 2013 sued on behalf of three Rowan County residents who wanted commissioners to stop opening meetings with prayers invoking the name of Jesus Christ. The residents said it violated the First Amendment to allow prayers specific to one religion.
Last July, federal Judge James Beaty issued a preliminary injunction ordering Rowan County commissioners to stop the practice.
The ACLU will continue pressing the Rowan County case, said legal director Chris Brook, because it differs from the one decided by the Supreme Court on Monday.
“In the Town of Greece, the prayers were delivered by invited clergy,” Brook said in a statement. “But in Rowan County, the prayers are composed and delivered by government officials themselves, reinforcing the impression that the government is favoring certain religious views over others and making it impossible for citizens of different beliefs to lead or be included in invocations.”
Town councils in North Carolina often invoke the name of Jesus Christ, though prayers are sometimes neutral. In most places, board members take turns offering up the prayer, while in Raleigh, the city council has a rotating list of pastors from a variety of faiths that open its meetings.
In the N.C. Senate, chaplain Peter Milner says most of the opening prayers. He rejoiced over Monday’s ruling.
“I think it’s fantastic. Bring it on. I was immediately excited, and I put the decision on my Facebook page,” Milner said, adding, “I get to keep doing what I do.”
Milner said he didn’t think prayer before Senate meetings excluded other religions.
“We were created by God, and if you’re a Buddhist or a Hindu, everyone knows you need to pray,” he said. “For me, I’m a Christian and believe in Jesus Christ, and I pray to him when I pray in front of a group, and I invite other people to pray.”
Milner said clergy from other faiths sometimes say the opening prayer. Abdullah Antepli, Duke University’s Muslim chaplain, gave the opening prayer one day in June 2012.
“That’s great,” Milner said. “Pluralism is alive and well, and as we each express our own tradition, that’s a positive thing. If I was to collapse my own faith because of someone else’s faith, I would disregard my own story.”
The N.C. House of Representatives has staff and representatives pray on a voluntary basis, and Rep. Paul Stam said the practice is “clearly constitutional.”
No one tells anyone what to pray, Stam added, “and we have wide, wide diversity. It was sort of weird thinking that the only unmentionable word is Jesus.”