Religious Liberty Tag - ACLU of North Carolina Mon, 22 May 2017 13:23:41 -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
Full Appeals Court to Hear ACLU, Rowan County Residents' Challenge to Coercive Prayer Practice

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.”


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.

mmeno [AT] acluofnc [DOT] org (Mike Meno) Religious Liberty Mon, 20 Mar 2017 15:24:49 -0400
In President Trump’s First Week, ACLU Hands Him First Stinging Rebuke

This is a remarkable day. When Donald Trump was elected president, we promised that if he tried to implement his unconstitutional and un-American policies that we would take him to court. We did that today. And we won.

Yesterday President Trump signed an executive order that suspended resettlement of Syrian refugees indefinitely, suspended all other refugee resettlement for 120 days, and banned the entry of nationals from Iraq, Syria, Iran, Sudan, Libya, Somalia, and Yemen for 90 days. All seven countries are predominately Muslim countries. We have no doubt that the motivation behind the executive order was discriminatory. This was a Muslim ban wrapped in a paper-thin national security rationale.

The executive order went into effect immediately and so did its destructive intent. At John F. Kennedy International Airport last night, Hameed Khalid Darweesh arrived and was immediately detained. Darweesh worked as interpreter for the Army’s 101st Airborne Division and, according to Brandon Friedman, a platoon leader in Iraq, saved countless U.S. service members’ lives. We don’t know how many other refugees and foreign nationals with green cards or visas might have been detained when they tried to make their way into the United States today, but we intend to find out. We are asking anyone with any information to get in touch with the ACLU.

The ACLU with other organizations immediately sprang into action and challenged Trump’s executive order in court as violating the Due Process and Equal Protection Clauses of the U.S. Constitution. We immediately got a hearing and argued our case. At around 9 p.m., Federal District Court Judge Ann M. Donnelly issued a stay, blocking President Trump’s discriminatory policy from taking effect and preventing refugees and immigrants from being deported. She did not rule on the constitutionality of the order, but for now, the men and women who would have been deported are safe. When I and staff attorney Lee Gelernt emerged from the courthouse, we were met with a sea of people cheering and chanting.

I cannot express how humbling and inspiring this moment is.

The United States is a nation governed by the rule of law and not the iron will of one man. President Trump now has learned that we are democratic republic where the powers of government are not dictatorial. They are limited. The courts are the bulwark of our democracy that protects individual rights and guards against the overreaching of an administration that confuses its will for the American public’s.

Tonight was one of the most incredible experiences of my life, one that demonstrates that the people united will never be divided. This is only the beginning. This is merely the first skirmish in a long battle to vigorously defend the Bill of Rights from the authoritarian designs of the Trump administration.

Savor this victory tonight, but prepare to fight on.

mmeno [AT] acluofnc [DOT] org (Mike Meno) Legal News Sat, 28 Jan 2017 15:12:00 -0500