Our Opinion: Court puts kibosh on public officials praying out loud

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If city and county officials want to continue opening their meetings in prayer, they will have to pass the microphone to local pastors instead of amplifying their personal pleas to the Almighty.

In a 10-5 decision, the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled Friday that Rowan County’s practice of opening board of commissioners’ meetings with Christian prayers led by commissioners themselves violates the First Amendment’s establishment clause and is “unconstitutionally coercive.”

“The prayer practice served to identify the government with Christianity and risked conveying to citizens of minority faiths a message of exclusion,” Judge J. Harvie Wilkinson wrote for the majority.

The case pitted the establishment clause against the free-exercise clause, which prohibits government from interfering with citizens’ private prayers. Judges determined that elected officials are primarily representing the board to which they were elected, not themselves as individuals, when they undertake ceremonial tasks during their meetings.

Chris Brook, American Civil Liberties Union of North Carolina legal director, argued the case on behalf of Rowan County residents who attended meetings and objected to the commissioners’ Christian prayers. In a statement released by the ACLU, lead plaintiff Nan Lund called the 4th Circuit ruling a constitutional victory.

“No one in this community should fear being forced by government officials to participate in a prayer or fear being discriminated against because they didn’t participate in a prayer before a meeting for all the public,” Lund said.

For those uncomfortable with public prayers, the outcome of Friday’s ruling probably won’t feel like a slam-dunk. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in the 2014 case Greece v. Galloway that public governing bodies can enlist volunteer chaplains to open meetings in prayer, even if the prayers offered are predominantly Christian.

It was unclear whether Rowan County would appeal Friday’s ruling to the Supreme Court.

While some council and commission members may see the court case as a setback, we think its instruction taken in concert with the Galloway decision strikes a reasonable balance between personal religious rights and the role of faith in public life.

Our objection to city councilmen and county commissioners praying aloud stems not from hostility to religion, but from skepticism over whether the neighbors we elect to make rules and set budgets are qualified to lead us in the sacred matters of eternity.

We voted for tax collectors, not spiritual shepherds, when we went to the ballot box.

Opening meetings with a moment of silence would be the best way to respect attendees’ individual rights under the First Amendment’s free-exercise clause. Elected officials and members of the public could all lead their own silent prayers, with no one setting the parameters for anyone else.

As we’ve said in this space before, a moment of silence need not be seen as godless. It’s a challenge to each of us to take ownership of our faith instead of passively praying along.

Local boards may prefer to invite clergy members from the community to open their meetings in prayer, and under guidance from the Supreme Court, that option remains on the table.