June 28 (UPI) — The U.S. Supreme Court declined Thursday to hear a challenge to a ruling that declared a prayer ritual by North Carolina government officials unconstitutional.
The Supreme Court’s decision not to hear the case leaves in place a lower court’s 2017 decision that Rowan County, N.C., commissioners’ practice of leading mostly Christian prayers before public meetings and inviting the public to join violates mandated separation of church and state in the First Amendment.
In particular, the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals found that legislative prayer that respects each faith is fine, but that Rowan County was biased towards Christianity.
“We conclude that the Constitution does not allow what happened in Rowan County,” the 4th Circuit court ruled. “The prayer practice served to identify the government with Christianity and risked conveying to citizens of minority faiths a message of exclusion.”
The American Civil Liberties Union of North Carolina initially filed suit against the commissioners on behalf of three Rowan County residents in 2013. ACLU Legal Director Chris Brook, who argued the case in district court and circuit court , praised the Supreme Court’s decision Thursday.
“This is an important victory for the rights of all people to be free from religious coercion by government officials,” Brook said. “People who attend public meetings should not have to fear that government officials may force them to participate in a prayer-or discriminate against them if they don’t.”
National Centers for Life and Liberty Attorney David Gibbs, who represented Rowan commissioners, told the Charlotte Observer he was disappointed.
“The will of the people of Rowan County, as to who they have elected should be respected, as should the freedom of those representatives to pray in accordance with their consciences,” Gibbs said. “No American should be forced to forfeit their freedom because someone else doesn’t like what you say or what you believe.”