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4th Circuit upholds freedom to pray for NC county

Decision: ‘Striking down legislative prayer practices that have long been accepted as “part of the fabric of our society” cannot be correct’
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RICHMOND, Va. – The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit ruled Monday to uphold a North Carolina county’s prayer policy. ADF attorneys were co-counsel in the case and were also the attorneys behind the 2014 U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Town of Greece v. Galloway that upheld prayer at public meetings, which the 4th Circuit cited as critical precedent for its decision in this case, Lund v. Rowan County.

“All Americans, including public servants, should have the freedom to pray without being censored, just as the Supreme Court found less than two years ago,” said ADF Senior Counsel Brett Harvey. “The First Amendment affirms the liberty of Americans to pray according to their consciences before public meetings. For that reason, the 4th Circuit rightly upheld Rowan County’s prayer policy, which is clearly constitutional.”

Harvey is co-counsel in defense of the county along with David Gibbs of The National Center for Life and Liberty, Hiram Sasser of Liberty Institute, and Morgan, Lewis & Bockius LLP Partner Allyson Ho, who argued as lead counsel for the county before the 4th Circuit in January.

Before a district court ruled against Rowan County’s policy in the lawsuit, which attorneys with the American Civil Liberties Union of North Carolina filed, the county permitted each county commissioner, on a rotating basis, to offer a prayer or have a moment of silence as part of an opening ceremony that included a call to order and the Pledge of Allegiance. The individual commissioner could decide the content of his or her prayer as well as the decision whether to pray or have a moment of silence. No one was required to participate.

In its 2-1 decision, the 4th Circuit reversed the district court’s ruling, saying, “Under the Supreme Court’s most recent decision explaining legislative prayer, Town of Greece v. Galloway…, we find the Board’s legislative prayer practice constitutional and reverse the judgment of the district court…. There is a clear line of precedent not only upholding the practice of legislative prayer, but acknowledging the ways in which it can bring together citizens of all backgrounds and encourage them to participate in the workings of their government.”

Additionally, the 4th Circuit wrote, “On a broader level, and more importantly, the very ‘history and tradition’ anchoring the Supreme Court’s holding in Town of Greece underscores a long-standing practice not only of legislative prayer generally but of lawmaker-led prayer specifically. Opening invocations offered by elected legislators have long been accepted as a permissible form of religious observance…. [W]e decline to accept the district court’s view that legislative prayer forfeits its constitutionally protected status because a legislator delivers the invocation. A legal framework that would result in striking down legislative prayer practices that have long been accepted as ‘part of the fabric of our society’ cannot be correct….”

Rowan County has made clear that it is committed to respecting the rights of all citizens and elected officials. The county says it will continue to welcome the entire community while solemnizing meetings in a manner consistent with historical tradition and the Constitution.

  • Pronunciation guide: Rowan (Roh-WANN')

Alliance Defending Freedom is an alliance-building, non-profit legal organization that advocates for the right of people to freely live out their faith.


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Brett Harvey
Brett Harvey
Senior Counsel, Vice President of Client and Alliance Engagement
Brett Harvey serves as senior counsel and vice president of client and alliance engagement with Alliance Defending Freedom.