Rowan County Commissioners voted Monday to ask the U.S. Supreme Court to rule on whether they should be allowed to say Christian prayers before meetings. The 5-0 vote came at a special session that lasted an hour and 45 minutes.
[Meanwhile, prayer returned at the start of the Charlotte City Council meeting last night. More below.]
Rowan commissioners have long started meetings with a prayer, almost always overtly Christian, led by one of the commissioners. In 2013, three residents sued to stop the practice, with the help of the American Civil Liberties Union. Since then, an outside chaplain has led the prayers while the case made its way through the courts.
A federal district court judge in North Carolina ruled against the county, saying the practice violated the constitutional separation of church and state. Last year, a three-judge panel of the federal appeals court reversed the ruling. But this July, the full 15-member panel again ruled against the county.
So commissioners held a special meeting last night to decide whether to appeal. Commission chair Greg Edds gave a lengthy presentation on the legal history of the case, arguing that past rulings give the county a good chance of winning.
He cited a similar case in Cincinnati where a federal appeals court - in a separate federal court circuit - upheld the practice of pre-meeting prayer. Edds said opposing rulings in two different circuits make it likely the Supreme Court will take up the case.
Edds said a Supreme Court ruling would affect public meetings around the country where prayers are offered.
“The outcome of our case will affect the United States House, the U.S. Senate, state legislatures, county commissions, city councils, school boards and countless other elected bodies all across our country. We are not alone,” Edds said.
Before the vote, a parade of citizens offered their opinions, some defending Christianity and public Christian prayers, others arguing against the practice.
Jim Sides, a former Rowan commissioner, said in his 12 years on the board he never heard any commissioner say a prayer to offend anyone.
“I beg you to please move forward with the appeal to the Supreme Court to continue this time-honored tradition of prayer before your meetings, and to reinstate your right as an elected official to offer those prayers,” he said.
Ken Porter said he is a United Methodist minister, but disagrees with the commission's practice.
“I don't believe it is right for me, as a citizen of the United States of America, to impose my faith. It is not my job to change the world, with the values of Jesus Christ. It is my job to challenge the world,” Porter told commissioners.
Rowan County has spent only $5,000 on the case since first being sued, Edds said Monday. Most of the county's defense is being paid for privately, by groups including The Liberty Institute, the Alliance Defending Freedom, and the National Center for Life and Liberty.
Edds also argued that it's in the county's interest to pursue a Supreme Court appeal for another reason: If it quits now, it could be liable for the ACLU's legal expenses. If it wins the case at the Supreme Court, it won't have to pay.
Both the Cincinnati and Rowan County cases will give the Supreme Court a chance to clarify a 2015 ruling that upheld prayer at public meetings. In that case, involving the town of Greece, N.Y., the court allowed prayer. But Greece involved an outside chaplain. In this case, the court will have to decide if it's OK for elected officials to lead prayers.
PRAYER RETURNS TO CHARLOTTE CITY COUNCIL
Meanwhile, a week after Charlotte Mayor Jennifer Roberts said the City Council was ending pre-meeting prayer, it was back again. The Charlotte Observer reports Monday's meeting opened with an invocation led by Republican council member Kenny Smith.
Last week’s meeting started without the traditional opening prayer. Roberts had questioned whether it was legal to opening city council meetings with prayer after this summer’s decision in the Rowan County prayer case.
The Observer reports that City Attorney Bob Hagemann told the council’s Governance and Accountability committee before Monday’s meeting that he believed the city’s invocation is constitutional. But he offered suggestions to give the city extra protection.
Hagemann said he reminded council members not to “proselytize or denigrate other faiths or non-believers." He said the city should not ask the audience to join in a prayer, and should not ask or direct the audience to stand during the invocation.
Sept. 25, 2017, video of the Rowan County commission special meeting