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Supreme Court prayer decision: Wrong but still very different from subject of Rowan County case

In case you missed it earlier this week, the good folks at the ACLU of North Carolina responded to Monday’s U.S. Supreme Court ruling upholding the practice of a New York town to start its town meetings with sectarian prayer. The statement also addresses the important distinctions between the facts in the New York case and the facts in Rowan County, North Carolina, where the government-endorsed prayers of public officials have also been the subject of litigation.

“In a 5-4 decision today, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld a New York town’s practice of starting town meetings with official sectarian prayer. The practice was challenged by residents of Greece, N.Y. who objected to hearing government prayers, the vast majority of which were expressly Christian invocations, as a condition of attending public meetings.

‘We strongly disagree with today’s 5-4 decision,’ said Jennifer Rudinger, Executive Director of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of North Carolina. ‘Today’s ruling is a disappointing setback for the rights of citizens of all beliefs to be treated equally by their government. Opening government meetings with prayers from a specific religious viewpoint tells citizens with different beliefs that they are not welcome and sends a message that the government endorses certain religious views over others. While we disagree with today’s ruling, it is a fact-specific decision making plain there are still limits on the types of prayers that legislative bodies may permit.’

The ACLU of North Carolina Legal Foundation filed a federal lawsuit in 2013 on behalf of three Rowan County citizens, demanding that the Rowan County Board of Commissioners stop its practice of opening government meetings with prayers that are specific to one religion. More than 97 percent of board meetings since 2007 had been opened by commissioners who delivered prayers specific to one religion, Christianity. On July 23, 2013, 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 prayers specific to one religion.

‘The facts in today’s ruling are very different from those in Rowan County, where government officials have conducted invocations specific to one religion in a manner that is unconstitutional,’ said Chris Brook, Legal Director of the ACLU of North Carolina Legal Foundation, who is representing the plaintiffs in the Rowan case. ‘In the Town of Greece, the prayers were delivered by invited clergy, but in Rowan County, the prayers are composed and delivered by government officials themselves, reinforcing the impression that the government is favoring certain religious views over others and making it impossible for citizens of different beliefs to lead or be included in invocations.’

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