Written by Don Byrd

The full Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals (en banc) on Friday affirmed a lower court ruling that the Rowan County (NC) Commission’s practice of opening its meetings with exclusively Christian prayers, led only by the lawmakers themselves, violates the U.S. Constitution. A 3-judge panel of the 4th Circuit previously reached the opposite conclusion, but now on appeal to the full appeals court, the plaintiffs prevailed, 10-5.

This case (Lund v. Rowan County) is one of the first major tests of the meaning and limits of the U.S. Supreme Court’s most recent legislative prayer ruling, which upheld a prayer practice in Town of Greece v. Galloway (2014). In finding the Rowan County Commission’s invocation practice unconstitutional, the Fourth Circuit emphasized key differences from the Town of Greece case. Most importantly, as opposed to the prayers given by community clergy in Town of Greece, in Rowan County, the commissioners themselves, and only the commissioners, delivered the invocations.

The Court here is careful to note that “legislator-led prayer is not inherently unconstitutional,” but it does “heighten[] the constitutional risks” and “alters the constitutional significance” of the other facts surrounding the practice. Viewed as a whole, the entire circumstances “served to identify the government with Christianity and risked conveying to citizens of minority faiths a message of exclusion.”

The content of many of the prayers was one of those facts that the court found led to this conclusion. Specifically, the commissioners’ invocations often “confess[ed] spiritual shortcomings on the community’s behalf,” “characterized Christianity as ‘the one and only way to salvation,'” and “urged attendees to embrace Christianity.” In addition, the commissioners often asked the community attendees to rise and pray with them.

The Court explained why this case required a different outcome than the Supreme Court’s Town of Greece ruling:

[B]ecause the commissioners were the exclusive prayer-givers, Rowan County’s invocation practice falls well outside the more inclusive, minister-oriented practice of legislative prayer described in Town of Greece. Indeed, if elected representatives invite their constituents to participate in prayers invoking a single faith for meeting upon meeting, year after year, it is difficult to imagine constitutional limits to sectarian prayer practice.

The great promise of the Establishment Clause is that religion will not operate as an instrument of division in our nation. Consistent with this principle, there is a time-honored tradition of legislative prayer that reflects the respect of each faith for other faiths and the aspiration, common to so many creeds, of finding higher meaning and deeper purpose in these fleeting moments each of us spends upon this earth. Instead of drawing on this tradition, Rowan County elevated one religion above all others and aligned itself with that faith. It need not be so. As the history of legislative invocations demonstrates, the desire of this good county for prayer at the opening of its public sessions can be realized in many ways that further both religious exercise and religious tolerance.

You can read the opinion here.

Meanwhile, in a mirror situation, the Sixth Circuit is also considering, en banc, a legislative prayer case (Bormuth v. Jackson County) involving lawmaker-led prayer in Jackson County, MIchigan. There, the 3-judge panel found an invocation practice unconstitutional, but the entire appeals court voted to rehear the case, indicating they may be poised to reverse that ruling (though you never know…). Stay tuned.

For more on this topic, see the Baptist Joint Committee’s Town of Greece resource page.

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