Religious Liberty - ACLU of North Carolina http://thatwww.acluofnc.org/blog/Categories/Listings/religious-liberty.html Tue, 23 May 2017 20:19:18 -0400 en-gb Full Appeals Court Considers ACLU Challenge to Coercive County Prayer Practice http://thatwww.acluofnc.org/blog/full-appeals-court-considers-aclu-challenge-to-coercive-county-prayer-practice.html http://thatwww.acluofnc.org/blog/full-appeals-court-considers-aclu-challenge-to-coercive-county-prayer-practice.html

By Mike Meno
ACLU-NC Communications Director

All members of the public – regardless of their personal religious beliefs – should feel welcome when they attend meetings of their local government that discuss issues affecting the community. But for years in Rowan County, North Carolina, that was not the case. The local county commissioners routinely coerced members of the public to participate in sectarian prayers – and in doing so, they violated the Constitution.

That was the central argument ACLU of North Carolina Legal Director Chris Brook made to all 15 judges on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit on March 22, when the full court sat en banc for arguments in a lawsuit the ACLU-NC filed four years ago on behalf of three Rowan County residents.

From 2007 to 2013, the Rowan County Commissioners regularly opened meetings by directing members of the public to stand and join them in prayers that overwhelmingly advanced beliefs specific to one religion, Christianity, with messages such as “the only way to salvation is through Jesus Christ” and “I pray the citizens of Rowan County will love you Lord, and put you first, Lord.”

This practice put residents with different beliefs in an untenable situation: participate in a sectarian prayer that went against their deeply held beliefs or fear being discriminated against by those public officials when they didn’t.

During the March 22 arguments in Richmond, Virginia, several judges expressed skepticism that such a practice was compatible with the First Amendment’s protection of religious liberty for all.

“The meetings over time express the view that Christianity is the preferred religion,” said Judge J. Harvie Wilkinson, who wrote a dissenting opinion last year arguing that “the message actually delivered in this case was not one of welcome but of exclusion.”

“The combination of the role of the commissioners, their instructions to the audience, their invocation of a single faith, and the local governmental setting ... threatens to blur the line between church and state to a degree unimaginable,” Wilkinson wrote in his October opinion.  

Judge Barbara Milano Keenan asked the attorneys for Rowan County how the practice didn’t discriminate against religious minorities who give public comment at meetings. She gave the example of a local synagogue asking the commissioners for a zoning easement.

If I am a Jew, Keenan asked, “and I am being told that Jesus Christ is the only way to salvation, and I do not believe in Jesus Christ … how can I not be implicitly coerced by the nature of the prayers and the identity of the prayer giver? … How can I feel as a citizen of that county … that I have any chance before the elected body of fair and equal consideration?”

Judge Wilkinson said he worried that such divisive practices would create dangerous disputes within communities, and he noted that in a recent Rowan County election, prayer at public meetings was used as a campaign issue. “It bothers me that we are on our way to make a willingness to pray to be a test for public office,” he said.

When Rowan County’s attorneys argued that legislative prayer has a long tradition in the United States, Judge James Wynn said he was offended by the concept that tradition alone could justify a practice. “Certainly if that was the case, we’d still have slavery,” he said.

From the beginning, Nan Lund, Bob Voelker, and Liesa Montag-Siegel, the three plaintiffs in the case, have been clear about their goals. “We in Rowan County have to be welcoming to people of all beliefs,” explained Bob on the courthouse steps after the arguments. “When I was there [at the commissioner meetings], I felt excluded and singled out because I didn’t agree with the prayers delivered.”

That, argued Brook, is exactly why the Fourth Circuit should uphold a lower court decision that found Rowan County’s practice unconstitutional. The appeals court ruling – which is not expected for several months – could have a wide-ranging impact on invocation practices in North Carolina and the other four states that fall under the Fourth Circuit’s jurisdiction.

Pictured: Plaintiffs Bob Voelker, Nan Lund, and Liesa Montag-Siegel with ACLU staff outside the courthouse March 22.

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mmeno [AT] acluofnc [DOT] org (Mike Meno) Religious Liberty Sat, 25 Mar 2017 12:14:35 -0400
Full Appeals Court to Hear ACLU, Rowan County Residents' Challenge to Coercive Prayer Practice http://thatwww.acluofnc.org/blog/full-appeals-court-to-hear-aclu-rowan-county-residents-challenge-to-coercive-prayer-practice.html http://thatwww.acluofnc.org/blog/full-appeals-court-to-hear-aclu-rowan-county-residents-challenge-to-coercive-prayer-practice.html

RICHMOND, Va. – The American Civil Liberties Union of North Carolina and three Rowan County residents will on March 22 ask a federal appeals court to uphold a lower court ruling that found that Rowan County commissioners violated the Constitution when they coerced public participation in prayers that overwhelmingly advanced beliefs specific to one religion.

All 15 judges on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit will hear oral arguments in the case during the en banc hearing. In October, the appeals court agreed to vacate and reconsider a divided 2-1 decision in September that found the practice constitutional.

“Our clients simply want to ensure that when they and others attend local government meetings, they will not have to worry about being coerced into participating in a sectarian prayer that goes against their beliefs and being discriminated against by local officials when they don’t,” said ACLU of North Carolina Legal Director Chris Brook. “We believe that the First Amendment is on our side, and we look forward to making our argument to the full appeals court.”

In a dissent to the September ruling, Judge J. Harvie Wilkinson wrote that the facts in Rowan County are a “conceptual world apart” from an invocation practice previously upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court previously upheld in Town of Greece v. Galloway.

 “The message actually delivered in this case was not one of welcome but of exclusion,” he wrote. “It is the combination of the role of the commissioners, their instructions to the audience, their invocation of a single faith, and the local governmental setting that threatens to blur the line between church and state to a degree unimaginable in Town of Greece.”

Background:

The ACLU of North Carolina and national ACLU Program on 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 May 2015, a federal district court ruled the practice unconstitutional and ordered the commissioners to cease opening their meetings with coercive, sectarian prayer and a request that the public join them in prayers that advanced one faith.

In 2014, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that clergy-led invocations used to open town council meetings in Greece, New York, were constitutional. In his May 2015 ruling, U.S. District Judge James Beaty ruled that Rowan County’s prayer practice “falls outside of the prayer practices approved in Town of Greece.”

In Greece, officials invited religious leaders to give prayers for the benefit of board members at the start of meetings. People of different religious traditions, including members of the Jewish, Baha’i, and Wiccan faiths, delivered those invocations, and the board members themselves never directed residents to participate in the prayers. In Rowan County, the officials themselves deliver the prayers, meaning people of different beliefs have no opportunity to do so, and the commissioners instruct those present to stand and join in the prayer, leading many residents to feel coerced and pressured into doing so.

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mmeno [AT] acluofnc [DOT] org (Mike Meno) Religious Liberty Mon, 20 Mar 2017 15:24:49 -0400
Appeals Court Agrees to Grant Full Bench Review of Rowan County Prayer Case http://thatwww.acluofnc.org/blog/appeals-court-agrees-to-grant-full-bench-review-of-rowan-county-prayer-case.html http://thatwww.acluofnc.org/blog/appeals-court-agrees-to-grant-full-bench-review-of-rowan-county-prayer-case.html

RICHMOND, VA – The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit announced yesterday that the full court would reconsider a September 2-1 panel decision that allowed the commissioners of Rowan County, North Carolina, to continue their practice of opening meetings with prayers that coerced public participation and overwhelmingly advanced beliefs specific to one religion.

With the grant of en banc review, that panel decision will be vacated, and all 15 judges for the Fourth Circuit will now review a lower court decision that found the commissioners’ practice unconstitutional.

“We’re very pleased that the full Fourth Circuit has agreed to review this practice that is clearly out of step with the First Amendment’s protection of religious liberty,” said Chris Brook, Legal Director of the American Civil Liberties Union of North Carolina, which represents three Rowan County residents in a challenge to the commissioners’ policy. “When people attend meetings of their local government, they should not have to worry about being coerced to participate in a sectarian prayer that goes against their beliefs and being discriminated against by local officials when they don’t.”

In a dissent to the Fourth Circuit’s September ruling, Judge J. Harvie Wilkinson wrote that the facts in Rowan County are a “conceptual world apart” from an invocation practice previously upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court in Town of Greece v. Galloway.

“The message actually delivered in this case was not one of welcome but of exclusion,” he wrote. “It is the combination of the role of the commissioners, their instructions to the audience, their invocation of a single faith, and the local governmental setting that threatens to blur the line between church and state to a degree unimaginable in Town of Greece.”

Background:

The ACLU of North Carolina and national ACLU Program on 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 May 2015, a federal district court ruled the practice unconstitutional and ordered the commissioners to cease opening their meetings with coercive prayers that advanced one faith. U.S. Judge James Beaty ruled that Rowan County’s prayer practice “falls outside of the prayer practices approved in Town of Greece.” In September 2016, a divided three-judge panel of the Fourth Circuit overturned the district court decision and held that the prayers were permissible under the U.S. Constitution. Today’s decision by the full Fourth Circuit to grant en banc review vacates that panel decision.

The case marks the first time a federal appeals court has reviewed a government prayer policy since the U.S. Supreme Court held that clergy-led invocations used to open town council meetings in Greece, New York, were constitutional.

In Greece, officials invited religious leaders to give prayers for the benefit of board members at the start of meetings. People of different religious traditions, including members of the Jewish, Baha’i, and Wiccan faiths, delivered those invocations, and the board members themselves never directed residents to participate in the prayers. In Rowan County, the officials themselves deliver the prayers, meaning people of different beliefs have no opportunity to do so, and the commissioners instruct those present to stand and join in the prayer, leading many residents to feel coerced into participation.

Pictured: ACLU-NC Legal Director Chris Brook with Rowan County residents Nan Lund, Robert Voelker, and Liesa Montag-Siegel.

 

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mmeno [AT] acluofnc [DOT] org (Mike Meno) Religious Liberty Tue, 01 Nov 2016 09:10:34 -0400
Appeals Court Panel Reverses Ruling that Found Rowan County Prayer Policy Unconstitutional http://thatwww.acluofnc.org/blog/appeals-court-panel-reverses-ruling-that-found-rowan-county-prayer-policy-unconstitutional.html http://thatwww.acluofnc.org/blog/appeals-court-panel-reverses-ruling-that-found-rowan-county-prayer-policy-unconstitutional.html

RICHMOND, VA – In a divided 2-1 ruling, a three-judge panel from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit today reversed a lower court decision that found the commissioners of Rowan County, North Carolina, violated the Constitution when they coerced public participation in prayers that overwhelmingly advanced beliefs specific to one religion.

The American Civil Liberties Union, which represents three Rowan County residents in a challenge to the commissioners’ prayer policy, says it will ask the Fourth Circuit to review the ruling en banc, in which the case would be heard by all 15 judges on the Fourth Circuit. In a dissenting opinion today, Judge J. Harvie Wilkinson wrote that “the message actually delivered in this case was not one of welcome but of exclusion” and that “it is the combination of the role of the commissioners, their instructions to the audience, their invocation of a single faith, and the local governmental setting that threatens to blur the line between church and state to a degree unimaginable in [the Supreme Court’s decision in] Town of Greece.”

“Today’s ruling is out of step with the First Amendment’s protection of religious liberty for all, and we will ask the full appellate court to review this decision,” said Chris Brook, Legal Director for the ACLU of North Carolina. “Rowan County residents should be able to attend local government meetings without being coerced to participate in a sectarian prayer or worry that the commissioners may discriminate against them if they do not. As Judge Wilkinson wrote in his dissent today, the facts in this case are a ‘conceptual world apart’ from those the U.S. Supreme Court upheld in Greece, New York, and that is why we will seek en banc review.”

Background:

The ACLU of North Carolina and national ACLU Program on 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 May 2015, a federal district court ruled the practice unconstitutional and ordered the commissioners to cease opening their meetings with coercive, sectarian prayer and a request that the public join them in prayers that advanced one faith.

The case is the first time a federal appeals court has reviewed a government prayer policy since the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the invocation practice of Greece, New York, was constitutional. In his May 2015 ruling, U.S. Judge James Beaty ruled that Rowan County’s prayer practice “falls outside of the prayer practices approved in the [U.S. Supreme Court decision] in Town of Greece.”

In Greece, officials invited religious leaders to give prayers for the benefit of board members at the start of meetings. People of different religious traditions, including members of the Jewish, Baha’i, and Wiccan faiths, delivered those invocations, and the board members themselves never directed residents to participate in the prayers. In Rowan County, the officials themselves deliver the prayers, meaning people of different beliefs have no opportunity to do so, and the commissioners instruct those present to stand and join in the prayer, leading many residents to feel coerced and pressured into doing so.

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mmeno [AT] acluofnc [DOT] org (Mike Meno) Religious Liberty Mon, 19 Sep 2016 13:43:15 -0400