RICHMOND, Va. — Elected officials may open public meetings by praying according to their chosen religion as long as they don’t pressure observers to join in, a divided federal appeals court ruled Monday.
A three-judge panel of the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals split 2-1 in deciding that the Rowan County commission had a constitutional right to open meetings with prayers. The prayers included almost exclusively Christian references and the commission’s five members invited audience members to stand and participate.
The court — which decides constitutional disputes involving Maryland, Virginia, West Virginia, North Carolina and South Carolina — said prayers opening meetings of legislative bodies are as old as the country and aren’t limited to neutral religious statements or references to a generic God. As long as the board’s five members didn’t proselytize or disparage religious beliefs, they were constitutionally protected, the court ruled.
“Not only are the legislators themselves the intended ‘congregation’ for legislative prayer, but the practice carries special meaning to the thousands of state and local legislators who are citizen representatives,” Judge G. Steven Agee wrote in the court’s opinion.
The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2014 that it is appropriate for local clergy to deliver predominantly Christian prayers at town meetings in Greece, New York. Different in the Rowan County case was that the prayers were offered by the commissioners themselves. The court also had to determine whether their invitation for the audience to join in prayer should be seen as coercive.
“Adults are not presumed susceptible to religious indoctrination or pressure simply from speech they would rather not hear. Thus, there is limited risk that disenchanted listeners would be affected by mere contact with lawmaker-led legislative prayer,” Agee wrote. “The Board’s legislative prayer practice amounts to nothing more than an individual commissioner leading a prayer of his or her own choosing.”
The American Civil Liberties Union sued Rowan County commissioners in 2013 because none of the prayers starting more than 140 meetings over a 5 ½-year span mentioned a religion other than Christianity. The ACLU said Monday it would ask for a review of the case by all 15 judges on the appeals court.
In a strongly worded dissent, Judge J. Harvie Wilkinson III, said the case captures the reason why the country’s Founding Fathers wrote the separation of church and state into the Constitution.
“When the state’s representatives so emphatically evoke a single religion in nearly every prayer over a period of many years, that faith comes to be perceived as the one true faith, not merely of individual prayer-givers, but of government itself,” wrote Wilkinson, who was nominated to the court by President Ronald Reagan in 1984. “When a seat of government begins to resemble a house of worship, the values of religious observance are put at risk, and the danger of religious division rises accordingly.”
Dalesio reported from Raleigh, North Carolina.