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Media Alerts - Lund v. Rowan County, North Carolina -- Fourth Circuit
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November 7, 2016
  Lund v. Rowan County, North Carolina -- Fourth Circuit
Headline: Lawmaker-Led Prayer at Public Board of Commissioners Meeting Constitutionally Permissible

Areas of Law: Constitutional Law

Issue Presented: Whether lawmaker-led invocations at a town Board of Commissioner's meeting violated the First Amendment.

Brief Summary: The United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit held the lawmaker-led opening prayer at every Board of Commissioner meeting was permissible under the First Amendment because it was not coercive and lawmaker-led prayer has a rich history and tradition in both Congress and state legislatures.

Extended Summary: Rowan County, North Carolina opens their Board of Commissioners public meetings with Christian, lawmaker-led invocations. Appellees, a group of non-secular and non-Christian community members, challenged the Board's practice as a violation of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. They filed suit in the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of North Carolina because the prayer practice 1) unconstitutionally affiliated the Board with one particular faith - Christianity, and 2) coerced appellees into participating in the invocation as a condition of attendance. The District Court held that given then-controlling precedent, the lawmaker-led prayer made legislators impermissible "supervisors of prayer." The District Court acknowledged that the Supreme Court's Town of Greece decision, which upheld the introductory prayer at issue in that case, "dismantled" the Fourth Circuit's legislative prayer doctrine. Nonetheless, the District Court found a number of factual distinctions justified a result different from Town of Greece. In particular, the court emphasized that in the instant case the commissioners delivered the prayers, as opposed to clergy, deviating from the long-standing tradition of using a chaplain. Further, the District Court stressed that the Board's practice created a "closed universe of prayer-givers" that "inherently discriminates and disfavors religious minorities."

The Fourth Circuit reversed the judgment of the District Court and remanded with directions. The court analyzed the Supreme Court's 2014 decision in Town of Greece v. Galloway and held that lawmaker-led prayer is a historical practice that the country accepts and that the Board's practices did not implicate the concerns articulated in Town of Greece for finding invocations coercive. Further, the Fourth Circuit concluded that the lawmaker-led prayer was similar to that of the clergy-led prayer at issue in Town of Greece.

In a dissent, Judge Wilkinson discussed the conceptual differences between Town of Greece and the instant case. He noted that legislator-led prayer is the very embodiment of the state. Judge Wilkinson also highlighted several concerns with the Board of Commissioners in Rowan County, most importantly the fact that from November 2007 to the beginning of the lawsuit in March 2013, 139 out of 143 meetings began with legislators delivering prayers that explicitly referenced Christianity.

To read the full text of this opinion, click here.

Panel: Judges Agee, Wilkinson, and Shedd

Argument Date: 01/27/2016

Date of Issued Opinion:

Docket Number:
No. 15-1591

Decided: Reversed and Remanded by Published Opinion

Case Alert Author: Dena Robinson, Univ. of Maryland Carey School of Law

Counsel: Allyson Newton Ho, MORGAN, LEWIS & BOCKIUS LLP, Dallas, Texas, for Appellant. Christopher Anderson Brook, AMERICAN CIVIL LIBERTIES UNION OF NORTH CAROLINA, Raleigh, North Carolina, for Appellees.

Author of Opinion: Judge Agee

Case Alert Supervisor: Professor Renee Hutchins

    Posted By: Renee Hutchins @ 11/07/2016 03:25 PM     4th Circuit  

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