Public servants don’t have easy jobs. Oftentimes, the decisions they make affect all of us. We should want them to take their responsibilities seriously—and support their attempts to do so.
But in Rowan County, North Carolina, the ACLU is attacking the county’s prayer policy, which allows each county commissioner, on a rotating basis, to seek Divine guidance with a prayer or have a moment of silence to start their meetings. The long-standing tradition is completely voluntary for the commissioners as well as those in attendance—no one is required to participate.
Opening public meetings with prayer has been a common practice since our nation’s founding. As Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas noted, “For as long as this country has had legislative prayer, legislators have led it.” It’s a freedom that has been previously protected by the United States Supreme Court. In the case of Town of Greece v. Galloway back in 2014, the Court held that Americans should have the freedom to pray without being censored, even when opening public meetings. The elected officials in these meetings deserve that same freedom.
Unfortunately, the United States Supreme Court will not weigh in on the case of Rowan County v. Lund. That decision leaves in place a decision rejecting these commissioners’ freedom to pray.
Conflicting decisions between two U.S. Courts of Appeals—the Fourth Circuit and the Sixth Circuit—have created a “circuit split.” For lower courts and other appellate courts, this creates confusion and ambiguity. In 2016, a Fourth Circuit panel rightly upheld Rowan County’s prayer policy. But when the case went before the full Fourth Circuit, the majority ruled against it. Meanwhile, the Sixth Circuit did the opposite—it upheld a nearly identical prayer policy in Jackson County, Michigan.
Justice Thomas, joined by Justice Neil Gorsuch, issued an extended written dissent from the decision not to review the case. “Thus the Sixth Circuit and Fourth Circuits are now split on the legality of legislator-led prayer,” he wrote. “State and local lawmakers can lead prayers in Tennessee, Kentucky, Ohio, and Michigan, but not in South Carolina, North Carolina, Virginia, Maryland, or West Virginia. This Court should have stepped in to resolve the conflict.”
What the majority of judges on the Fourth Circuit failed to grasp is that these commissioners don’t give up their First Amendment freedoms just because they work in government. Public servants are people just like us. If prayer to open a meeting is how some commissioners feel best prepared to handle the task of serving their communities, why does the ACLU care?
Taking advantage of an opportunity to pray before a meeting shows how seriously public servants take their jobs. Instead of respecting that, the ACLU has argued that any prayers must be censored to purge any reference unique to any one faith, or these commissioners should be silenced and not allowed to pray at all.
But if a commissioner’s conscience dictates that he or she pray in Jesus’ name, the First Amendment permits them to do so. If a commissioner’s conscience dictates seeking God’s wisdom before a meeting, then they should have the freedom to do so. Just like they have the freedom not to pray.
The Constitution reads, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” Rowan County isn’t establishing a religion. It has simply chosen to honor their elected officials with the freedom to pray, and that is something we should all support.