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Fourth Circuit: Board’s prayer practice is unconstitutional

(AP) Elected officials’ practice of opening meetings in North Carolina with Christian prayer and inviting audience members to join is unconstitutional, a federal appeals court ruled Friday in a closely watched case likely headed for the U.S. Supreme Court.

The 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a lower court ruling that found Rowan County commissioners’ prayer practice to be “unconstitutionally coercive.”

The Supreme Court already has ruled that it’s appropriate for local clergy to deliver predominantly Christian prayers and town meetings in New York. The question in the Rowan County case was whether it makes a difference that the prayers were given by the commissioners themselves and whether their invitation for the audience to join them in prayer is coercive.

The 4th Circuit ruled that because the commissioners were the exclusive prayer givers, their practice “falls well outside the more inclusive, ministered-oriented practice” endorsed by the Supreme Court.

“The prayer practice served to identify the government with Christianity and risked conveying to citizens of minority faiths a message of exclusion,” the majority opinion said.

The full 4th Circuit heard the case in March after a divided three-judge panel said Rowan County commissioners had a constitutional right to open meetings with prayers as long as they don’t pressure observers to participate.

The American Civil Liberties Union filed the lawsuit on behalf of non-Christians who say the prayers made them feel excluded and sent the message that the board favored a particular religion. The prayers included almost exclusively Christian references and the commission’s five members invited audience members to stand and participate.

The ACLU noted that Rowan County commissioners directed the public to participate, with phrases such as “please pray with me,” and used language that could be seen as proselytizing, like “I pray that the citizens of Rowan County will love you Lord.”

Attorneys for Rowan County said commissioners don’t force anyone to participate, noting that people can leave the room or stay seated during the prayer. Since the district court’s decision deeming the prayers unconstitutional, the commission has invited a volunteer chaplain to lead prayer.

Nan Lund, one of the Rowan County residents who brought the case, said in March that residents who don’t agree with the prayers fear they may not be treated fairly before the board if they don’t participate.

“They don’t forget,” Lund told reporters after the 4th Circuit hearing. “Maybe they don’t deliberately target you, but they don’t forget who those people are who didn’t stand and pray.”

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