Commentary

The real meaning of the First Amendment and religious freedom

Religious liberty

Image: www.aclu.org

Notwithstanding the recent efforts of a noisy minority on the American religious right to distort its real and historical meaning, “religious freedom” is a critically important American value that needs to be celebrated and strengthened.

And happily, the U.S. District Court of the Middle District of North Carolina did just that yesterday when it ruled against the coercive, state-sponsored prayers of the Rowan County Board of Commissioners. Mike Meno of the ACLU of North Carolina explains in this news release:

Court Rules Rowan County’s Coercive Prayer Policy Violated Constitution
Federal Court Rules Policy Was Discriminatory in ACLU Lawsuit Filed On Behalf of Three Rowan County Residents Who Were Excluded by Coercive Prayer Practice

WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. – A federal court today ruled that the Rowan County Board of Commissioners violated the Constitution when they coerced public participation in prayers that overwhelmingly advanced beliefs specific to one religion. Between 2007 and 2013, more than 97 percent of the prayers delivered by commissioners before public meetings were specific to one religion, Christianity.

“When Plaintiffs wish to advocate for local issues in front of the Board, they should not be faced with the choice between staying seated and unobservant, or acquiescing to the prayer practice of the Board,” wrote U.S. District Judge James Beaty of the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of North Carolina. “[…]The Board’s practice fails to be nondiscriminatory, entangles government with religion, and over time, establishes a pattern of prayers that tends to advance the Christian faith of the elected Commissioners at the expense of any religious affiliation unrepresented by the majority.”

The American Civil Liberties Union of North Carolina Legal Foundation and national ACLU Program on the Freedom of Religion and Belief filed a lawsuit challenging the Commissioners’ coercive prayer practice in March 2013 on behalf of Rowan County residents Nan Lund, Robert Voelker, and Liesa Montag-Siegel. In June 2013, the court preliminarily enjoined the County Commissioners from opening their meetings with coercive, sectarian prayer. In his ruling today, Beaty made that injunction permanent, prohibiting the Commissioners from returning to their former practice of opening their meetings with a request that the public join them in prayers that advanced one faith.

“I’m very glad that the court agrees that Rowan County and other local governments should work to be welcoming to residents of all beliefs, and not simply those who share the majority view,” said Nan Lund, the lead plaintiff in the case. “Rowan County is home to people of many different beliefs, and I think our officials should embrace that diversity and make public meetings as inclusive as possible.”

“Residents attending public meetings should not have to choose between participating in a religious exercise led by a government official and singling themselves out as a religious minority.” said Chris Brook, legal director for the ACLU of North Carolina Legal Foundation. “The message of today’s decision is clear: Rowan County’s prayer practice unconstitutionally discriminated against many of its residents, alienating many who simply wanted to play a role in local decision-making.”

Judge Beaty held that Rowan County’s prayer practice “falls outside of the prayer practices approved in the [recent U.S. Supreme Court decision] in Town of Greece.” In that case, Greece, New York, invited clergy and laypersons to deliver prayers in a nondiscriminatory fashion; in Rowan County only County Commissioners deliver prayers.

“While an all-comers policy is not necessarily required, a nondiscriminatory one is,” Beaty wrote. “When all faiths but those of the five elected Commissioners are excluded, the policy inherently discriminates and disfavors religious minorities.”

“We are pleased the district court recognized that, even after the Supreme Court’s recent decision, there are real constitutional limits on government-sponsored prayer,” said Daniel Mach, director of the ACLU Program on Freedom of Religion and Belief.

The case is Lund, et al. v. Rowan County. The court’s ruling is available at acluofnc.org.

 

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