A federal judge on Monday ruled a Rowan County elected board was violating the U.S. Constitution when opening meetings with prayers specific to one religion.
The ruling from U.S. District Judge James Beaty stated that the board’s “practice fails to be nondiscriminatory, entangles government with religion, and over time, establishes a pattern of prayers that tends to advance the Christian faith of the elected Commissioners at the expense of any religious affiliation unrepresented by the majority.”
The ruling came after the ACLU of North Carolina Legal Foundation and national ACLU Program on the Freedom of Religion and Belief filed a lawsuit challenging the commissioners’ prayer practice in March 2013.
The organizations stated in their challenge that between 2007 and 2013, more than 97 percent of the prayers delivered by Rowan County commissioners were specific to one religion, Christianity.
Several months after the lawsuit was filed in federal court, the judge ordered the commissioners to stop the prayers until the lawsuit was decided.
In the interim, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a ruling that buoyed the hopes of commissioners and others supporting the prayers. In May 2014, in a case that split the justices 5-4, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that Greece, N.Y., was in keeping with the Constitution when inviting clergy in to offer invocations at the beginning of monthly meetings. The town, near Rochester, N.Y., also handed out “chaplain of the month” plagues.
Judge Beaty held that Rowan County’s prayer practice “falls outside of the prayer practices approved” in Greece. In Greece, N.Y., the town invited clergy and laypersons to deliver prayers in a nondiscriminatory fashion, he said.
In Rowan County, it is only the county commissioners who deliver prayers.
“While an all-comers policy is not necessarily required, a nondiscriminatory one is,” Beaty wrote. “When all faiths but those of the five elected Commissioners are excluded, the policy inherently discriminates and disfavors religious minorities.”