Rowan County | Cases | First Liberty

Prayer Before Public Meetings

Throughout our country’s history, public meetings have opened in prayer. The county commission meetings of Rowan County, North Carolina are no different. Just like America’s very first Congress—as well as the current Congress and every Congress in between—Rowan County opens its sessions with legislative prayers.

The Supreme Court has previously approved of the long-standing tradition of “legislative prayer” and its role in solemnizing policymaking sessions, encouraging lawmakers to selflessly seek the greater good, and acknowledging the role that faith plays in the lives of millions of Americans. In both Marsh v. Chambers (1983) and Town of Greece v. Galloway (2014), the Supreme Court held that prayers offered by private citizens before government meetings are fully consistent with the Constitution and an important part of America’s history and heritage.

ACLU Sues Rowan County

In March 2013, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) sued Rowan County alleging that because all commissioners self-identified as Christians, their traditional method of opening sessions with legislative invocations excluded all other religions and must therefore be stopped.

First Liberty stepped in to represent the Rowan County commissioners after a U.S. district court ruled against the county in 2015. In the Fall of 2016, a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit  determined that Rowan County’s practice of legislative prayer was consistent with the Supreme Court’s prior decisions concerning legislative prayer.

However, the Fourth Circuit, sitting en banc, overruled its three-judge panel, concluding in a divided 10-5 decision, that prayers offered by elected officials prior to public meetings violate the U.S. Constitution.

A Question Left Unanswered by the Supreme Court

Soon after the Fourth Circuit handed down its decision, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit issued a decision about a similar practice of legislative prayer in Jackson County, Michigan. In that case, the Sixth Circuit, sitting en banc, concluded Jackson County’s practice is consistent with the Constitution. First Liberty also represents the commissioners in Jackson County.

The Supreme Court, however, declined to review either case, leaving a “circuit split.”

While the Supreme Court denied review of both cases, Justice Clarence Thomas, joined by Justice Neil Gorsuch, dissented from the decision, saying, “For as long as this country has had legislative prayer, legislators have led it . . . The Fourth Circuit’s decision is both unfaithful to our precedents and ahistorical. It also conflicts with a recent en banc decision of the Sixth Circuit . . . This Court should have stepped in to resolve this conflict.”

As Justice Thomas explained, “State and local lawmakers can lead prayers in Tennessee, Kentucky, Ohio, and Michigan, but not in South Carolina, North Carolina, Virginia, Maryland, or West Virginia.”

“We agree with Justice Thomas who wrote in his dissenting opinion that, ‘The only real difference between this case and Town of Greece is the person leading the prayer.’ We hope the Supreme Court will one day extend that protection across the country,” said Kelly Shackelford, President and CEO of First Liberty.

 

Press Release
For Immediate Release: June 28, 2018

Contact: Lacey McNiel, media@firstliberty.org

Direct: 972-941-4453

U.S. Supreme Court Upholds Sixth District Court Decision Allowing Legislative Prayer

Decision to not review opposite Fourth Circuit decision leaves counties wondering if invocations are allowed now based on geography, rather than the Constitution


WASHINGTON, DC—The U.S. Supreme Court today announced that it denied to review the decision of the United States Court of Appeal for Sixth Circuit in Bormuth v. County of Jackson, which found legislator invocations to be constitutional. First Liberty Institute and Supreme Court advocate Allyson Ho with Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher represent Jackson County, Michigan, whose commissioners open public meetings with prayer.

“Our country has a long history of legislator-led prayer, just as the Sixth Circuit determined in our favor,” said Kelly Shackelford, President and CEO to First Liberty Institute. “Thankfully our clients in Jackson County, Michigan will be able to continue their tradition. We hope the Supreme Court will one day extend that protection across the country.”

At the same time the Court declined to review an opposite opinion from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth District in Rowan County v. Lund, which concluded that similar invocations are unconstitutional.

While the Supreme Court denied review of both cases, leaving in place the decisions before the Sixth and Fourth Circuits, Justice Clarence Thomas, joined by Justice Neil Gorsuch, dissented from the decision, saying, “For as long as this country has had legislative prayer, legislators have led it . . . The Fourth Circuit’s decision is both unfaithful to our precedents and ahistorical. It also conflicts with a recent en banc decision of the Sixth Circuit . . . This Court should have stepped in to resolve this convict.”

Like numerous federal and state legislatures since the founding of our country, these county commissioners precede official business with a short prayer. The commissioners—as many of their counterparts have done for centuries—deliver legislative prayers themselves. Today’s decision leaves in place a circuit split, meaning as Justice Thomas explained, “State and local lawmakers can lead prayers in Tennessee, Kentucky, Ohio, and Michigan, but not in South Carolina, North Carolina, Virginia, Maryland, or West Virginia.”

Shackelford added, “We agree with Justice Thomas who wrote in his dissenting opinion that, ‘The only real difference between this case and Town of Greece is the person leading the prayer.’”

To read more, go to FirstLiberty.org/RowanCounty.

# # #

About First Liberty Institute

First Liberty Institute is a non-profit public interest law firm and the largest legal organization in the nation dedicated exclusively to defending religious freedom for all Americans. To arrange an interview, contact Lacey McNiel at media@firstliberty.org or by calling 972-941-4453.

To download this press release, please click here.


First Liberty Press Release – 10/12/2017

First Liberty Press Release – 07/14/2017

First Liberty Logo - Restoring Religious Liberty for All Americans

To The American Legion:

As a grateful citizen, I support your effort to honor those who have fallen in battle and to keep the Bladensburg WWI Veterans Memorial standing as a visible reminder of valor, sacrifice, endurance, and devotion.

Veterans memorials like the one in Bladensburg, MD are symbols reminding us of the sacrifice of our service members and the cost of war. Tearing down the Bladensburg Memorial would erase the memory of the 49 fallen heroes of Prince George’s County—like they never even existed.

We cannot allow the Bladensburg Memorial to be bulldozed.

Please know that you have my support and backing in your petition to the U.S. Supreme Court.