First Amendment Tag - ACLU of North Carolina Mon, 22 May 2017 13:24:11 -0400 en-gb ACLU-NC Files Lawsuit Demanding Documents on Implementation of Trump Muslim Ban

ATLANTA — The American Civil Liberties Union of North Carolina filed a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit today demanding government documents about the on-the-ground implementation of President Trump’s Muslim bans.

Today’s action is part of a total of 13 FOIA lawsuits filed by ACLU affiliates across the country. The ACLU of North Carolina lawsuit, filed in conjunction with the ACLU affiliates in Georgia, South Carolina and West Virginia, seeks records from U.S. Customs and Border Protection’s Atlanta Field Office.  In particular, the lawsuit seeks records related to CBP’s implementation of President Trump’s Muslim bans at Raleigh-Durham and Charlotte Douglas International Airports.

The ACLU first sought this information through FOIA requests submitted to CBP on February 2. Since the government has failed to substantively respond, the ACLU is now suing.

“President Trump’s unconstitutional Muslim travel bans disrupted people's lives and spread fear and uncertainty throughout our communities. The public deserves to know how these orders were carried out so that officials can be held accountable to ‘We the People’,” said Irena Como, Staff Attorney with the ACLU of North Carolina.

“CBP has a long history of ignoring its obligations under the federal Freedom of Information Act — a law that was enacted to ensure that Americans have timely access to information of pressing public concern. The public has a right to know how federal immigration officials have handled the implementation of the Muslim bans, especially after multiple federal courts have blocked various aspects of these executive orders,” said Mitra Ebadolahi, Border Litigation Project Staff Attorney with the ACLU of San Diego and Imperial Counties.

Each lawsuit seeks unique and local information regarding how CBP implemented the executive orders at specific airports and ports of entry in the midst of rapidly developing and sometimes conflicting government guidance.

The coordinated lawsuits seek information from the following local CBP offices:

  • Atlanta

  • Baltimore

  • Boston

  • Chicago

  • Detroit

  • Houston

  • Los Angeles

  • Miami

  • Portland

  • San Diego

  • San Francisco

  • Seattle

  • Tampa

  • Tucson

The full list of lawsuits can be found here.

Information on the original FOIA requests is here.

More background on CBP’s FOIA practices is here.

mmeno [AT] acluofnc [DOT] org (Mike Meno) Legal News Wed, 12 Apr 2017 12:17:48 -0400
Full Appeals Court Considers ACLU Challenge to Coercive County Prayer Practice

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.

mmeno [AT] acluofnc [DOT] org (Mike Meno) Religious Liberty Sat, 25 Mar 2017 12:14:35 -0400
Appeals Court Panel Reverses Ruling that Found Rowan County Prayer Policy Unconstitutional

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.”


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.

mmeno [AT] acluofnc [DOT] org (Mike Meno) Religious Liberty Mon, 19 Sep 2016 13:43:15 -0400
You Have The Right to Film Police

By Molly Rivera, Communications Associate

Here’s what you need to know.

The nationally publicized video recordings of police officers killing Alton Sterling in Louisiana and Philando Castile in Minnesota are timely and tragic reminders of the power that people carrying smart phones have to document police misconduct.

Here in North Carolina, where Governor Pat McCrory this week signed a law that restricts the public’s access to police body and dash camera footage, video footage of police encounters taken on people’s cell phones will be more important than ever. Even with this shameful law on the books, neither legislators nor law enforcement have the power to take away the public’s right to film police.

Here are three things to know about filming the police:

  • You can take pictures of anything in plain view in a public space including federal buildings, transportation facilities, and the police, as long as you are not interfering with law enforcement.
  • Police officers may not confiscate or demand to view your digital photographs or video without a warrant, and they cannot delete your photographs or video under any circumstances. 
  • Our Mobile Justice NC app allows you to record audio and video which is then automatically sent to the ACLU of North Carolina. Learn more and download here.

Here is what you should do if you are stopped by police because you were taking photos or video:

  • Always remain polite and never physically resist a police officer.
  • The right question to ask is, "Am I free to go?" If the officer says no, then you are being detained, something that under the law an officer cannot do without reasonable suspicion that you have or are about to commit a crime or are in the process of doing so. Until you ask to leave, your being stopped is considered voluntary under the law and is legal.
  • If you are detained, politely ask what crime you are suspected of committing, and remind the officer that taking photographs is your right under the First Amendment and does not constitute reasonable suspicion of criminal activity.

Some officers may be wearing body cameras or have a camera on the dashboard of their vehicle. Under the law Governor McCrory signed this week, dash camera footage is no longer public record, and law enforcement agencies may deny a request to disclose video footage. This means that people who are filmed by police body cameras may have to spend time and money to go to court in order to see that footage. These barriers are significant and we expect them to drastically reduce any potential this technology had to make law enforcement more accountable to the communities they serve.

Police officers put their lives on the line to protect and serve the public. But that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be held accountable when they abuse their authority. Transparency is important for building trust among the people they have sworn to protect. 

If you have trouble obtaining or viewing body cam footage recorded by police, please contact us. You can also help spread the word and make sure your friends and family know their rights and download the Mobile Justice NC app on their smartphone.

mmeno [AT] acluofnc [DOT] org (Mike Meno) Legal News Wed, 13 Jul 2016 16:47:28 -0400