A federal appeals court on Friday ruled that a government prayer practice in North Carolina was unconstitutional because a local board of commissioners only allowed its elected representatives, all of whom are Christian, to deliver religious invocations. For years, the Rowan County Board of Commissioners has opened its twice-monthly meetings with a prayer delivered by one of its five members. The prayers are “invariably and unmistakably Christian in content,” according to the ruling, and a review of recorded meetings showed that 97 percent of the invocations mentioned “Jesus,” “Christ” or the “Savior.” Prayers also occasionally implied Christianity was superior to other faiths, or proselytized by asking attendees to accept the Christian faith. In a 10-5 ruling, the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that Rowan County’s practice violated the establishment clause of the First Amendment and exceeded the limits of Supreme Court-approved legislative prayer.
By way of full disclosure, I’ll admit to the fact I don’t believe in God. That shouldn’t be taken to mean that I’m anti-religion, though. I respect the meaning and place of religion in the lives of those who take it seriously. What I don’t respect are people who wield their beliefs like a club. Christian tolerance is not holding your beliefs to be superior and using that self-ascribed superiority to deny others their religious freedom. This case is exactly that.
The separation of Church and State was intended by the Founding Fathers to be a bulwark against the sort of religious tyranny those who came before them had faced in their native England. When Church and State are commingled, tyranny is the inevitable result. The Rowan County Board of Commissioners proved was how easily that can happen.
The court ruled in favor of the American Civil Liberties Union of North Carolina, which had filed suit on behalf of non-Christian Rowan County residents who had called the prayers into question.
“This ruling is a great victory for the rights of all residents to participate in their local government without fearing discrimination or being forced to join in prayers that go against their beliefs,” said ACLU of North Carolina legal director Chris Brook, who argued the case. “We are very pleased that the full Fourth Circuit has upheld a bedrock principle of the First Amendment: that government should not be in the business of promoting one set of religious beliefs over others.”
The court’s decision was an important step against discrimination and signaled that Rowan County should “be a welcoming place for everyone, no matter their religious beliefs,” added Nan Lund, a volunteer tutor and the lead plaintiff in the case.
The federal court’s ruling in Lund v. Rowan County is the latest development in a contentious battle over the role of religion in government meetings. Some observers expect the case to end up before the Supreme Court.
Religion has a place in American life; it’s woven into this country’s DNA. America was founded by intolerant religionists who hated the persecution they faced in England while having no issue with their own brand of intolerance.
When you do it, it’s the worst sort of religious intolerance and oppression imaginable. When we do it, it’s religious freedom.
From where I sit, it’s really a pretty simple equation. Either every religion is welcomed into the public arena…or none are. Those who follow the majority religion are certainly free to believe and worship as they choose, but they don’t have the right to exclude those whose religious beliefs follow a different path.
I do have one question for the American Taliban: Do you really think Jesus Christ would have excluded those who follow other faith traditions? If you believe he would, you’re doing it wrong.