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NC county asks US Supreme Court to reaffirm freedom to pray before public meetings

Rowan County request gives high court opportunity to clear up conflicts between lower courts
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WASHINGTON – Rowan County in North Carolina asked the U.S. Supreme Court Thursday to uphold its policy pertaining to prayer before public meetings and to clear up conflicting rulings on legislator-led prayer in lower courts.

Alliance Defending Freedom attorneys are 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 both a panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit in Rowan County v. Lund and a recent decision by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit in a different case cited as critical precedent for their decisions in favor of legislator-led prayer policies. The full 4th Circuit, however, later reversed the 4th Circuit panel’s decision, creating a split between the circuits.

“All Americans, including public servants, should have the freedom to pray without being censored, just as the Supreme Court has held,” 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, a 4th Circuit panel last year rightly upheld Rowan County’s clearly constitutional prayer policy. Because the full 4th Circuit should have ruled similarly, we are asking the Supreme Court to uphold the county’s policy.”

Harvey is co-counsel in defense of the county along with David Gibbs of The National Center for Life and Liberty, Ken Klukowski of First Liberty Institute, and other allies.

“The Supreme Court’s guidance is sorely needed here so that the lower courts properly apply its decision in Town of Greece v. Galloway,” Harvey explained. “That decision very clearly supports the principles at issue in this case, as the 6th Circuit has recognized. This case gives the high court the opportunity to resolve the conflict between the 4th and 6th circuits.”

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.

“Like numerous federal and state legislatures since the Founding, Rowan County’s Board of Commissioners precedes its official business with a short legislative prayer…,” the petition filed with the Supreme Court explains. “The Commissioners—as some of their counterparts have done for centuries—deliver legislative prayers themselves as a way of meeting their ‘spiritual needs [as] lawmakers,’ and ‘reflect[ing] the values they hold as private citizens….’ As this Court held in Town of Greece, ‘prayer practices [that] fit within the tradition long followed in Congress and the state legislatures’ necessarily comport with the Establishment Clause.”

As noted in the petition, last month the full 6th Circuit expressly rejected the conclusions of the 4th Circuit and found that the Supreme Court’s analysis in Town of Greece supports legislator-led prayers.

“Thousands of legislative bodies with tens of thousands of members and millions of citizens across nine States are now subject to conflicting legal regimes regarding one of the Nation’s oldest traditions,” the Rowan County petition states. “Legislatures in the remaining States must hazard a guess as to which approach to take. As in Town of Greece, this Court’s review is required to resolve this intractable conflict on a recurring, exceptionally important issue of First Amendment law.”

  • 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.