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US Supreme Court declines to resolve confusion on freedom to pray before public meetings

Conflicts between lower courts remain, likely to rise again
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WASHINGTON – The U.S. Supreme Court declined Thursday to take up Rowan County v. Lund, a North Carolina case that gave the high court the opportunity to uphold its previous rulings pertaining to prayer before public meetings and to clear up conflicting rulings on legislator-led prayer in lower courts.

Alliance Defending Freedom 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 both a panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit in the Rowan County case and a recent decision by 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 people should have the freedom to pray without being censored, just as the Supreme Court has held,” said ADF Senior Counsel Brett Harvey. “As has been true throughout history, Americans don’t give up that First Amendment freedom when they become public servants. For that reason, a 4th Circuit panel last year rightly upheld Rowan County’s clearly constitutional prayer policy. We had hoped the Supreme Court would take this opportunity to reaffirm and clarify its 2014 ruling for the lower courts so that no further confusion would exist. Though it didn’t take up the issue again in the Rowan County case, it will likely see this matter again down the road.”

In October 2017, the county asked the high court to hear the case. Harvey is co-counsel in defense of the county along with Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher LLP Partner Allyson Ho, who is lead counsel and argued for the county before the 4th Circuit; attorneys with First Liberty Institute; and David Gibbs of The National Center for Life and Liberty.

“The will of the people of Rowan County as to who they have elected should be respected, as should the freedom of those representatives to pray in accordance with their consciences,” said Gibbs. “No American should be forced to forfeit their freedom because someone else doesn’t like what you say or what you believe.”

In a strongly worded dissent, Justice Clarence Thomas, joined by Justice Neil Gorsuch, wrote, “In ruling that Rowan County must change the prayers it uses to open its board meetings, the Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit emphasized that the county’s prayers are led by the legislators themselves, not by paid chaplains or guest ministers. This analysis failed to appreciate the long history of legislator-led prayer in this country, and it squarely contradicted a recent decision of the Sixth Circuit. I would have granted Rowan County’s petition for certiorari.”

Before a district court ruled against Rowan County’s policy in the lawsuit, filed by attorneys with the American Civil Liberties Union of North Carolina, 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.

As noted in the county’s petition filed with the Supreme Court, the full 6th Circuit expressly rejected the conclusions of the 4th Circuit last year 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 explained. “Legislatures in the remaining States must hazard a guess as to which approach to take.”

  • 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.