CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Attorney General Patrick Morrisey will add West Virginia to the list of states appealing a decision by a federal court that ruled a county commission in North Carolina was violating the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution during each meeting by opening with a prayer delivered by a county commissioner.
The court ruled that the Rowan County Commission had violated the 1st Amendment of the Constitution because the prayers were exclusively Christian and coercive in nature, but Morrisey disagrees with that ruling.
“This is not in any way an attempt to be coercive,” Morrisey said during the MetroNews-affiliated “The Mike Queen Show” on the AJR News Network. “This is an attempt to allow the free expression of one’s religious practices. It’s been going on since the founding of the Republic, and we’re not going to let some politically correct people stop it now.”
Thirteen states support the appeal, but only two of those states (West Virginia and South Carolina) are in the Fourth Circuit–which is where the case was heard.
Morrisey’s concern is that the wider ruling could impact county commissions and other local legislative bodies in this state.
“It could impact a town council, a county commission, or a legislative body,” he said. “The principle really is the same. What you see here–this is an attempt to just further narrow a citizen’s free practice of his or her religious beliefs.”
The Supreme Court ruled that prayer at public meetings is a legal practice, but the federal court ruled that the elected members themselves could not deliver the prayer.
In regard to coercion, the ruling says, “The Commissioners ‘directed the public to participate in the prayers’ by asking them to stand for and join in the prayer. Although Defendant argues that the prayers are offered solely for the benefit of the Board, that the Board signaled for the public to join in the prayers undercuts such an argument.”
“Even if the Board’s statements were mere invitations, and if that distinction mattered, an invitation from a government authority issued to the public often carries more weight and an expectation of compliance than other invitations. For example, when a government official states at a public meeting, ‘If you would come to order,’ or ‘Please be quiet,’ few, if any, would consider such requests to be mere invitations which could be ignored.”
But Morrisey said prayer is voluntary at these meetings.
“This is voluntary,” Morrisey said. “This is not an effort to impose mandatory prayer. This is not the mandatory prayer in school debate. This is a voluntary action.”
According to the American Civil Liberties Union, 97 percent of the prayers delivered in the county commission meetings in North Carolina were exclusive to Christianity.
Judge James A. Beatty ruled that the actions were coercive in nature in his ruling, a portion of which can be read below.
“While an all-comers policy is not necessarily required, a nondiscriminatory one is. When all faiths but those of the five elected Commissioners are excluded, the policy inherently discriminates and disfavors religious minorities. That some day a believer in a minority faith could be elected does not remedy that until then, minority faiths have no means of being recognized.”
The judge also mentioned that the difference between Rowan County and Greece, NY, the site of a Supreme Court ruling that favored public prayer, came down to who was delivering that prayer.
“Under the Board’s practice, the government is delivering prayers that were exclusively prepared and controlled by the government, constituting a much greater and more intimate government involvement in the prayer practice than that at issue in Town of Greece or Marsh. The Commissioners here cannot separate themselves from the government in this instance.”
“The board chair here would regularly ask that everyone stand for the prayer and the Pledge of Allegiance. Then, the designated prayer-giving Commissioner would often open the prayer by saying such phrases as ‘let us pray,’ or ‘please pray with me.’ Because no one other than the commissioners provided the prayers, the prayers repeatedly and exclusively advanced only the faiths of the five Commissioners.”
More than half of the counties in the five states that make up the Fourth Circuit have prayers at county commission meetings.
“We emphasize that this is voluntary, and I’d be the first to step in if I thought there was even an iota of coercion involved in this,” he said. “Citizens do not have to participate.”