Case Background

In a decades-long tradition, the commissioners of Rowan County, North Carolina have followed the example of the America’s very first Congress—as well as the current Congress, and every Congress in between—by and opening its sessions in legislative prayer. The responsibility of offering the invocation rotates between the five commissioners, who are elected to serve on the Rowan County Board of Commissioners by their fellow citizens every four years.

In March of 2013, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) sued Rowan County for this practice, claiming that because all commissioners self-identified as Christian, their traditional method of opening sessions in legislative prayer excluded all other religions, and must therefore be stopped.

First Liberty Institute Legal Action

First Liberty stepped in to represent the Rowan County commissioners after a U.S. district court ruled against them in 2015, working with co-counsel to defend the commissioners’ right to pray.

On September 19, 2016, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit held that the Rowan County commissioners can continue to open their court sessions in prayer.

According to the Court’s opinion:

“The Board’s legislative prayer practice falls within our recognized tradition and does not coerce participation by nonadherents. It is therefore constitutional.” (p. 54)

“We have always endeavored to ensure the county complies with the law when solemnizing meetings and we are pleased the county’s efforts are in compliance,” says Hiram Sasser, Deputy Chief Counsel for First Liberty.

The Constitutionality of Legislative Prayer

In 1789, the First Congress drafted the First Amendment in the Bill of Rights, and also passed resolutions creating the salaried positions of Senate Chaplain and House Chaplain—in the very same week. These chaplains were paid in part to open congressional sessions in prayer—a practice that continues in the United States Congress to this day.

Various Supreme Court rulings have affirmed this practice.

A challenge to legislative prayer in Nebraska made its way to the United States Supreme Court in 1983. The Supreme Court ruled in Marsh v. Chambers that legislative prayer by a paid, ordained clergyman, as established by the First Congress in 1789, did not violate the Constitution.

More than thirty years later, in Town of Greece v. Galloway, the Supreme Court revisited the topic, ruling, yet again, that legislative prayer is constitutional. That case involved both volunteer clergy invited from every house of worship in town, as well as town residents who were not clergymen.

“We are grateful that the Fourth Circuit followed the Supreme Court’s clear precedents involving legislative prayer – Marsh v. Chambers and Town of Greece v. Galloway,” says Ken Klukowski, Senior Counsel for First Liberty. “The same Congress that wrote the Establishment Clause in 1789 also practiced legislative prayer, and today the court of appeals recognized that for over 200 years, lawmakers have always been able to offer these prayers in a manner that reflects their personal faith.”

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