Rowan Commissioners Continue Prayer
Special Report - March 6, 2012
Despite a warning from the American Civil Liberties Union of North Carolina, the Rowan County Board of Commissioners opened its most recent meeting with a Christian prayer to Jesus Christ. According to the Salisbury Post, the ACLU-NC sent a letter to the Board in mid-February, stating that they had “received more complaints about sectarian legislative prayer by the Rowan County Board of Commissioners than any other local government in North Carolina in the past several years”“four to five,” according to a follow-up question by WBTV to the ACLU-NC Legal Director Katy Parker. The Rowan County commissioners, who generally alternate amongst themselves who leads the opening prayer, opened their February 21 meeting with a prayer invoking the name of Jesus.
The ACLU has reportedly sent letters to more than a dozen county or city governing bodies, urging them to halt the practice of opening meetings with sectarian prayers. The effort to push local and state government bodies in North Carolina to cease and desist with sectarian prayers comes on the heels of a decision by the U.S. Supreme Court to decline to hear an appeal of a case involving the Forsyth County Board of Commissioners’ public invocation policy that allows prayers to specific deities. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit’s July 2011 decision to uphold a district court ruling that the application of Forsyth County’s prayer policy is unconstitutional conflicts with previous rulings by the Eighth and Eleventh Circuit Courts. The Supreme Court’s decision to not hear the appeal leaves room for disagreement among legal scholars over the constitutionality of various government prayer policies.
Rowan County Commissioner Jon Barber, who offered the prayer before the Board’s March 5th meeting, points out the differences between Forsyth’s policy of inviting members of the clergy to offer prayers and Rowan’s practice of having commissioners offer the prayers. In a letter from Barber, quoted in the Charlotte Observer, he writes, “I think any rational, reasonable person who reviews this practice would conclude that our invocations simply set a tone for our meetings, while adhering to the time honored practice of beginning public meetings with an invocation.”
North Carolina ACLU-NC spokesman Mike Meno disagrees, telling the Charlotte Observer, “There is a crucial difference between private and government speech. [C]ourts have agreed that invocations used to begin a public meeting constitute government speech and therefore must be kept nonsectarian in order to equally welcome citizens of all beliefs.”
As we previously reported, the Alliance Defense Fund (ADF), which represented Forsyth County in its lawsuit defending its prayer policy, sent a letter to North Carolina Attorney General Roy Cooper on February 14 in response to an ACLU letter about legislative prayer. In that letter, ADF wrote about the Forsyth County ruling: “Although the majority determined that having eighty percent of the prayers make explicitly Christian references was too frequent absent the inclusion of prayers from other faith traditions, their decision should not be interpreted as requiring a blanket prohibition on sectarian references in legislative prayers.” The letter pointed out, “Each case will require a fact specific analysis.”
No Need to Censor Legislative Prayers - February 16, 2011
ACLU Targets Prayer At Legislature - February 6, 2012
Pastor Challenges Prayer Policy - July 12, 2010
Supreme Court Refuses Forsyth County Prayer Case - January 12, 2009
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