A federal court has ruled that the practice of opening commission meetings in North Carolina with Christian prayers and inviting the audience to join violates the U.S. Constitution.
In a 10–5 decision on Friday, the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a lower court ruling that found the prayers practiced by the Rowan County Board of Commissioners to be "unconstitutionally coercive."
The lawsuit against the county was filed by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) on behalf of non-Christian residents who said they felt excluded by the prayers.
The Supreme Court has already ruled that it is appropriate for local clergy to deliver predominantly Christian prayers at meetings in limited circumstances, according to Fox News. But in the case of Rowan County, the court weighed whether the prayers were delivered by the elected-commissioners themselves and whether their invitation for the audience to join was coercive.
"The prayer practice served to identify the government with Christianity and risked conveying to citizens of minority faiths a message of exclusion," Judge J. Harvie Wilkinson wrote in the majority opinion.
Judge Paul Niemeyer, in his dissenting opinion, contended that the decision "actively undermines the appropriate role of prayer in American civil life."
"In finding Rowan County's prayer practice unconstitutional, essentially because the prayers were sectarian, the majority's opinion strikes at the very trunk of religion, seeking to outlaw most prayer given in government assemblies, even though such prayer has been an important part of the fabric of our democracy and civic life," he wrote, as reported by The Associated Press.
The full Fourth Circuit decided to hear the case in March after a divided three-judge panel ruled that the commissioners had a constitutional right to open meetings with prayer as long as audience members are not pressured to participate.
The ACLU argued that the commissioners directed the public to participate in the prayers, by using phrases such as "please pray with me." The law group also claimed that the commissioners also used language that can be seen as proselytizing, like "I pray that the citizens of Rowan County will love you, Lord."
The attorneys for Rowan County, however, contended that the commissioners do not force anyone to participate, noting that anyone can leave the room or stay seated during the prayer. A volunteer chaplain has been invited to lead the prayers after the lower court decision deemed the practice unconstitutional.
Chris Brook, legal director for ACLU of North Carolina, described Friday's ruling as a "great victory for the rights of all residents to participate in their local government without fearing discrimination."
First Liberty Institute, one of the firms representing the county, noted that it is up to the commission whether to appeal. Mike Berry, deputy general counsel for the law firm, said he believes the case is ripe for Supreme Court review because it conflicts with the justices' prior rulings.