RALEIGH – A civil liberties group is suing a North Carolina county that uses Christian prayers to bless its meetings.
The complaint filed Tuesday in U.S. District Court by the American Civil Liberties Union of North Carolina names the Rowan County Board of Commissioners as plaintiffs. The lawsuit accuses the board of violating the First Amendment provision ordaining the separation of church and state by routinely praying to Jesus Christ to start its meetings.
The U.S. Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in a 2011 case that boards can use an invocation, but only if it is nonsectarian. That case involved neighboring Forsyth County. After the U.S. Supreme Court declined to review that ruling, more than 20 local governments in North Carolina changed their opening invocations in order to comply with the law. But the American Civil Liberties Union suit said Rowan officials elected to “knowing and willfully flout the law,” citing a review that found 97 percent of board meetings since 2007 included the use of prayers that were explicitly sectarian, typically ending in such blessings as “in the name of Jesus, the one and only way to salvation” and “in the name of Jesus, the King of King and Lord of Lords.”
After the ACLU sent the county a letter last year informing them of the appeals court ruling, scores of Christian supporters prayed and sang hymns at a meeting of the Rowan commissioners to support the board’s continued use of Christian prayers.
Commission Chairman Jim Sides said at the time he was prepared to go to jail to defend what he viewed as the board’s right to pray as they see fit. On Wednesday, Sides declined to say whether that is still his position, but said the board would take up the issue at its next scheduled meeting on Monday night.
“The only comment I’m making at this time is that we are aware of the lawsuit filed against the county,” said Sides, who identifies himself on the county’s web page a member of Gospel Light Baptist Church. “We’re taking no official stand at this time. That’s on the advice of our attorney.”
Nan Lund, a Salisbury resident named as one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit, said she wants her local government to be open and welcoming to people of all beliefs.
“When officials begin a public meeting with prayers that are specific to only one religious viewpoint, I feel unwelcome and excluded,” said Lund, who said she is not a Christian and does not subscribe the beliefs promoted by the board’s prayers.
Another of the plaintiffs, Liesa Montag-Siegel, is Jewish. According to the lawsuit, she attended several board meetings in recent years where she felt the prayers sent the message that her elected officials favor Christians and that she is an outsider.
Chris Brook, the legal director of the ACLU’s state chapter, said Wednesday that all Rowan County citizens deserve to be treated equally by their government, regardless of the board members’ personal religious beliefs
“By refusing to obey the law and insisting on opening meetings with prayers that are specific to only one religion, the Rowan County Commissioners have created an environment where citizens of different beliefs are made to feel alienated,” Brook said. “In order to make local government more welcoming to citizens of all beliefs, officials must end this unconstitutional practice at once.”