Federal Court Blocks North Carolina County From Delivering Sectarian Prayers at Government Meetings

July 23, 2013 12:00 am

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Grants Preliminary Injunction Prohibiting Rowan County Commissioners from Delivering or Allowing Prayers Specific to One Religion

July 23, 2013

CONTACT: 212-549-2666, media@aclu.org

GREENSBORO, N.C. – Today the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of North Carolina issued a preliminary injunction ordering the Rowan County Board of Commissioners to immediately cease its practice of opening government meetings with unconstitutional prayers specific to one religion.

In its ruling, the court prohibited the county from “knowingly and/or intentionally delivering or allowing to be delivered sectarian prayers” at official board meetings.

The injunction comes four months after the American Civil Liberties Union and the ACLU of North Carolina Legal Foundation filed a lawsuit on behalf of three Rowan County residents demanding that the Rowan County Board of Commissioners stop its unconstitutional practice of opening government meetings with prayers that are specific to one religion.

“We are very pleased that the court reaffirmed one of the most basic principles of religious liberty – that all members of the community should be treated and welcomed equally by their government, regardless of their personal religious beliefs,” said Chris Brook, legal director for the ACLU of North Carolina Legal Foundation. “We urge the commissioners to obey the rule of law and comply with the injunction. Opening government meetings with prayers that are specific to only one religion not only alienates people of different beliefs but also clearly violates the Constitution’s protection of religious liberty.”

The original complaint, filed in the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of North Carolina, details how more than 97 percent of board meetings since 2007 have been opened with prayers specific to one religion, Christianity.

The commissioners, who delivered the prayers themselves, routinely called on Jesus Christ and refer to other sectarian beliefs during invocations. Opening invocations have declared that “there is only one way to salvation, and that is Jesus Christ,” as well as given thanks for the “virgin birth,” the “cross at Calvary,” and “the resurrection.”

“When the government plays favorites with religion, it sends a message to those who follow non-preferred faiths that they are second-class citizens,” said Heather L. Weaver, Senior Staff Attorney for the ACLU Program on Freedom of Religion and Belief. “Today’s decision puts Rowan County residents of every faith back on equal footing before the Board of Commissioners.”

A 2011 ruling by the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals in another ACLU case, Joyner, et al. v. Forsyth County Board of Commissioners, made clear that if local boards decide to open meetings with invocations, the prayers may not indicate a preference for any specific faith. After the U.S. Supreme Court declined to review that ruling last year, more than 20 local governments throughout North Carolina changed their opening invocations in order to comply with the law.

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