The US Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit [official website] on Monday ruled [text, PDF] that Rowan County Commissioners in North Carolina may open public meetings with prayer. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and ACLU of North Carolina [advocacy websites] brought the suit in 2013 on behalf of three Rowan County residents who were alleging that the opening prayers violated their First Amendment rights. The focus of the lawsuit is the opening prayer at almost all meetings, which is focused only on Christianity. In a press release on Monday, the ACLU stated [press release]:
In Rowan County, the officials themselves deliver the prayers, meaning people of different beliefs have no opportunity to do so, and the commissioners instruct those present to stand and join in the prayer, leading many residents to feel coerced and pressured into doing so.
The ACLU argued that the Rowan County Commissioners’ practices violated the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment, and the federal district court in 2015 agreed. However, Monday’s Fourth Circuit opinion rejected that arguing, stating that the practices are constitutional and supported by previous case law.
The US Supreme Court [official website] ruled [JURIST report] in 2014 Town of Greece v. Galloway [SCOTUSblog backgrounder] that the practice of opening town meetings with a prayer does not violate the Establishment Clause [JURIST backgrounder] of the First Amendment [text]. The US Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit had ruled [JURIST report] in 2012 that the New York town’s practice amounted to an unconstitutional government endorsement of religion. In an opinion by Justice Anthony Kennedy, the court reversed that ruling, finding a “permissible ceremonial purpose.”