Federal Appeals Court Upholds Practice of Public Prayer at Beginning of North Carolina Government Meetings

Members of the town board in Greece, N.Y., bow their heads in prayer at the start of a meeting in June 2013. (PHOTO CREDIT: Bloomberg News)
Members of the town board in Greece, N.Y., bow their heads in prayer at the start of a meeting in June 2013. (PHOTO CREDIT: Bloomberg News)

Two years after the Supreme Court upheld the practice of public prayer before local-government meetings, federal judges are still divided over where to draw constitutional lines around the religious invocations.

That much is clear from a federal appeals court ruling Monday upholding the prayer practices of county commissioners in North Carolina.

The decision was guided by the 2014 Supreme Court 5-4 ruling that permitted prayers at Greece, N.Y., town board meetings. In the earlier case, justices found that the prayers, although sectarian, didn’t violate the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause. But the high court also cautioned that Greece case was “fact-specific” and that the court wasn’t endorsing invocations that “denigrate nonbelievers or religious minorities, threaten damnation or preach conversion.”

A similar dispute came before the Fourth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond, Va., involving prayers delivered by Rowan County, N.C, commissioners before board meetings.

According to the Associated Press:

The American Civil Liberties Union sued the commission in 2013 on behalf of three people who said the practice of starting meetings with prayers that almost always referred to Christianity was coercive and discriminatory.

A federal judge ruled last year that the commissioners’s prayer practice fell outside constitutional protection even in light of the Town of Greece precedent. U.S. District Judge James Beaty concluded that the prayers created a “closed-universe of prayergivers” that “inherently discriminates and disfavors religious minorities.”

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SOURCE: Wall Street Journal, Jacob Gershman