Courtroom interior_newWritten by Don Byrd

In September, a panel of the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the invocation policy of North Carolina’s Rowan County Commission against charges that it violates the separation of church and state. The case was one of the most important to date exploring the limits of the Supreme Court’s 2014 legislative prayer decision in Town of Greece v. Galloway, in part because prayers in the Rowan County case are delivered by commissioners themselves and not rotating clergy from the community.

Now, the entire 4th Circuit (en banc) has voted to re-hear the Rowan County case. The Charlotte Observer reports the decision may be attributed to the dissenting opinion in the case.

In his September dissent, the 4th Circuit’s Harvie Wilkinson said the commissioners’ prayers sent a message of “exclusion” to those who did not ascribe to their beliefs.

“… 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 earlier Supreme Court case, Wilkinson wrote.

That Wilkinson remains one of the country’s leading conservative legal voices makes his argument all the more significant, [North Carolina law professor Bill] Marshall said Tuesday.

“It would be my guess that a lot of the 4th Circuit members will be influenced by his opinion,” Marshall said. “So if I were predicting, I would say that the fact the 4th Circuit is meeting en banc is not good news for Rowan County.”

The case will be re-heard next year. Stay tuned.