Court Splits on Government Prayer Debate

By William Vogeler, Esq. on July 20, 2017 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

You may govern or you may pray, but not both at the same time.

That's about as much direction as the U.S. Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals gave on government prayers in Rowan County, North Carolina. In Voelker v. Americans United for Separation of Church and State, the appeals court said county commissioners violated the Constitution by giving prayers and inviting audiences to join in.

On the other hand, the judges acknowledged the "more inclusive, ministered-oriented practice" was legal.

"Please Pray"

In the split decision, the appellate court opened wider a wound in the community debate over government prayers. Attorneys for the ACLU, which represents the plaintiffs in the case, said the commissioners opened public sessions with phrases such as:

"Please pray with me," and "I pray that the citizens of Rowan County will love you, Lord."

Nancy Lund, one of the plaintiffs, said that residents who didn't pray feared they would not be treated fairly by the commission.

Rowan County lawyers said that commissioners didn't force anyone to pray, and that anyone could have left the room. However, they said the commissioners are now inviting chaplains or volunteers to lead prayers.

Split Decision

In the 10-5 ruling, the majority said Rowan County had favored one religion above all others.

"It need not be so," Judge Harvie Wilkinson wrote for the majority. "As the history of legislative invocations demonstrates, the desire of this good county for prayer at the opening of its public sessions can be realized in many ways that further both religious exercise and religious tolerance."

The court did not say how the commissioners should pray, only that they could not lead prayers in the same way.

Judge Paul Niemeyer, in a dissenting opinion, said the majority had misapplied the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Town of Greece v. Galloway. In the 2014 case, the Court said the municipality did not violate the Constitution by opening its board meetings with prayer.

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