ACLU sues North Carolina county over Christian invocations at meetings

Rowan County commission meetings typically open with a pro-Christian invocation. In Lund v. Rowan County, some residents say the practice is offensive and makes them uncomfortable.

The American Civil Liberties Union has filed suit against a rural county in North Carolina, asking a federal judge to permanently enjoin local officials from delivering overtly Christian invocations prior to county commission meetings.

Members of the Rowan County Commission traditionally deliver an invocation prior to the pledge of allegiance at the start of public meetings.

Some county residents have complained about what they say are blatantly Christian references in the invocations.

For example, in March 2012, a commissioner ended his invocation: “And, as we pick up the Cross, we will proclaim His name above all names, as the only way to eternal life. I ask this in the name of the King of Kings, the Lord of Lords, Jesus Christ.”

In December 2012, a commissioner concluded his invocation with the words: “I pray that the citizens of Rowan County will love you Lord, and that they will put you first. In Jesus’s name. Amen.”    

The suit was filed on behalf of three residents of Rowan County who complain that sectarian premeeting prayers and comments are offensive and make them feel excluded from the community and the political process.

The complaint was filed in US District Court for the Middle District of North Carolina on Tuesday. It says that since November 2007, a sectarian prayer has been delivered in 139 of 143 meetings – or roughly 97 percent of the commission’s public meetings.

“I want my local government to be open and welcoming to people of all beliefs,” one of the plaintiffs, Nan Lund, said in a statement. “But when officials begin a public meeting with prayers that are specific to only one religious viewpoint, I feel unwelcome, excluded, and compelled to participate” in a religious exercise, she said.

The ACLU sent a letter in February 2012 informing the board that sectarian prayers at government meetings violated the First Amendment. The board never responded formally, the suit says.

The complaint says that board members made public statements of defiance, defending the content of their invocations.

One board member was quoted in the media as saying, “I will continue to pray in Jesus’ name. I am not perfect so I need all the help I can get, and asking for guidance for my decisions from Jesus is the best I, and Rowan County, can ever hope for.”

In 2011, the Fourth US Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond, Va., ruled against North Carolina’s Forsyth County in a similar case involving invocations that critics said were too overtly Christian.

The appeals court said that any prayers must be neutral and not exhibit a preference for one faith over another. That case was also litigated by the ACLU. It caused more than 20 local governments in North Carolina to change their invocations at public meetings.

“All citizens of Rowan County deserve to be treated equally by their government, regardless of their personal religious beliefs,” said Chris Brook, legal director of the ACLU of North Carolina Legal Foundation.

“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,” Mr. Brook said.

“In order to make local government more welcoming to citizens of all beliefs, officials must end this unconstitutional practice at once,” he said.

The case is Lund v. Rowan County.

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