Rowan County or­dered to pay ACLU’s $285,000 le­gal bills in pub­lic prayer case

The Charlotte Observer - - Front Page - BY CHARLES DUNCAN

cdun­[email protected]

A fed­eral judge found the way the Rowan County Com­mis­sion prayed be­fore pub­lic meet­ings un­con­sti­tu­tional. An ap­peals court even­tu­ally agreed and the Supreme Court last sum­mer de­clined to hear the case brought by the Amer­i­can Civil Lib­er­ties Union, fed­eral court records show. Now the county will have to pay the ACLU’s le­gal bills for the five-year le­gal fight: $ 285,000.

On Mon­day, County Com­mis­sion mem­bers voted to pay the bill, the Sal­is­bury Post re­ports.

“We are ob­vi­ously very un­happy with this and I think a few of us are, prob­a­bly, phys­i­cally sick to our stom­ach that we have to do this, but this is the risk that we took,” County Com­mis­sion Chair Greg Edds said, ac­cord­ing to the news­pa­per.

The law­suit dates back to 2013 when three Rowan County res­i­dents sued the county com­mis­sion over the pub­lic prayer at the be­gin­ning of each meet­ing, ac­cord­ing to court fil­ings. The com­mis­sion chair or mem­bers give a prayer at the be­gin­ning of each meet­ing, the law­suit says, and over six years 97 per­cent of prayers were Christian.

An ap­peals court sided with the res­i­dents, rep­re­sented by the ACLU, in 2017. “For years on end, the elected mem­bers of the county’s Board of Com­mis­sion­ers com­posed and de­liv­ered point­edly sec­tar­ian in­vo­ca­tions. They ro­tated the prayer op­por­tu­nity amongst them­selves; no one else was per­mit­ted to of­fer an in­vo­ca­tion,” a judge with the Fourth Cir­cuit Court of Ap­peals wrote.

“The prayers are in­vari­ably and un­mis­tak­ably Christian in con­tent,” the judges’ opin­ion notes, find­ing the Rowan County Com­mis­sion’s pub­lic prayer un­con­sti­tu­tional.

Over the sum­mer the U.S. Supreme Court de­clined to hear the case, court records show, which up­holds the rul­ing and ended the le­gal fight.

“The Supreme Court did not give an ex­pla­na­tion for its de­ci­sion as is cus­tom­ary in or­ders. Jus­tice Clarence Thomas joined by Jus­tice Neil Gor­such dis­sented from the court’s re­fusal to take the case,” ac­cord­ing to The Hill.

“Thomas said the Fourth Cir­cuit’s de­ci­sion is ‘both un­faith­ful to our prece­dents and ahis­tor­i­cal,’” The Hill wrote.

“This case has al­ways been about mak­ing Rowan County more wel­com­ing to peo­ple of all be­liefs, and we are so glad that the Supreme Court has let this rul­ing stand,” said Nan Lund, one of the plain­tiffs in the case, ac­cord­ing to an ACLU press re­lease.

“This is an im­por­tant vic­tory for the rights of all peo­ple to be free from re­li­gious co­er­cion by govern­ment of­fi­cials,” ACLU of North Carolina’s Chris Brook said. “Peo­ple who at­tend pub­lic meet­ings should not have to fear that govern­ment of­fi­cials may force them to par­tic­i­pate in a prayer—or dis­crim­i­nate against them if they don’t.”

Charles Duncan: 843- 626- 0301, @dun­can­re­port­ing

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