Does the Rowan County Board of Commissioners’ current prayer policy violate the U.S. Constitution?
That’s the question the ACLU of North Carolina is asking an entire federal court to reconsider after a 2-1 ruling in September that reversed a U.S. District Court decision holding that the county’s state sponsored prayers violated the Constitution.
The petition, filed Monday afternoon, asks for an en banc review, which would involve all of the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals’ 15 judges rather than the three-judge panel who ruled in September. It was filed on behalf of three Rowan County residents, Nancy Lund, Robert Voelker and Liesa Montag-Siegel.
At the Rowan County Board meetings, the chairman directs the public to stand for the invocation and the Pledge of Allegiance, the meeting is called to order and then there is another invocation or prayer, according to the filing. Lund, Voelker and Montag-Siegel are not Christian but the vast majority of the prayers are, the document states.
“Commissioners make clear that they intend for the audience to participate and benefit from the prayers by directing the audience to stand for the prayers, typically beginning ‘with some variant of ‘let us pray’ or please pray with me,’’ as well as embracing the audience-focused, proselytizing nature of their prayers,” the petition states.
As an example, the document uses a prayer by Commissioner Carl Ford:
“I pray that the citizens of Rowan County will love you Lord, and that they will put you first. In Jesus’ name, Amen.”
Lund, Voelker and Montag-Siegel each said they feel coerced at the meetings to participate in the prayer, including feeling compelled to stand so as not to stand out in the crowd.
“If allowed to stand, (the three-judge panel’s) opinion would wash away nearly all constitutional limitations on legislative prayer practices,” the petition states.
It argues that the majority erroneously concluded that prayers delivered by elected officials are indistinguishable from prayers delivered by outside clergy and approved by the U.S. Supreme Court in the 2014 case of Town of Greece v. Galloway.
“En banc review is necessary to ensure fealty to the teachings of Town of Greece and to prevent a misreading of that decision that would eviscerate the Establishment Clause in the legislative prayer context,” the petition states. “Second, the majority’s sweeping interpretation of Town of Greece’s impact has potentially dire consequences for our democracy.”