United States: Court Allows Almost All-Christian Prayers in County Council

A U.S. federal appeals court in Virginia ruled on September 19 that commission members from Rowan County, North Carolina, are allowed to begin their meetings with almost exclusively Christian prayers as long as they respect the beliefs of others. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), one of whose goals is to prevent authorities from interfering with citizens' religious beliefs, had taken the case to court.

En March 2013, the ACLU and its local chapter, the North Carolina Legal Foundation (NCLF), took the Rowan County Commission practice to court on the grounds that in five and a half years, 97% of over 140 prayers initiating the meetings did not mention any religion other than Christianity. The five members of the commission invited those attending the hearings to take part in these spiritual times.

The ACLU criticized prayers for affirming that “the only way of salvation is Jesus Christ”, or to thank the Lord for the “virgin birth” as well as “the cross on the Mount of Calvary” and “the resurrection”. One of the three plaintiffs, Nan Lund, a resident of Salisbury said he wanted "local authorities to be open and welcome people of all faiths" and that he felt "excluded and unwelcome".

In July of the same year, Federal Judge James A. Beaty Jr ordered defendants, via preliminary injunction, to cease prayers, while the case was under review. County resident and complainant Montag Siegel told the Salisbury Post to be delighted that justice thus meant that the law applied to all : “It was what we asked, that all feel equal and that no one feels left out when attending these meetings. " Two years later, Justice Beaty declared the prayers unconstitutional as they were predominantly Christian.

"This is a practice which fails to be non-discriminatory, which entangles public authorities and religion, and which over time establishes a type of prayer aimed at advancing the Christian faith of commissioners to the detriment of minority religious affiliations, ”wrote the magistrate. A panel of three judges from a Federal Court of Appeal has therefore reversed its decision, but without ruling unanimously, one of the magistrates presenting a dissenting opinion. A division that recalls how much the question of the relationship between public authorities and religion is debated in the United States, a country whose First Amendment prohibits Congress from meddling in spiritual beliefs.

A contested decision in an unfinished legal debate

Ruling definitively in 2015, Justice Beaty referred to a judgment of the Federal Supreme Court, Town of Greece v. Galloway of May 2014 deciding that prayers were allowed if there was no preference for a religion. In this case, the city of Greece, in the state of New York, opened its prayer meetings to all faiths. Justice Beaty's interpretation was correct, but Justice Agee, one of the three members of the Federal Court of Appeal, also mentions this decision, however to get permission from prayer meetings organized by the authorities.

Its meaning of Greece v. Galloway is somewhat abusive since, by imposing this condition, the Supreme Court restricted a right more than it created one. For Judge Agee, the Greece v. Galloway is the Supreme Court's anchor of history and tradition itself which highlights a long practice not only of prayers generally with which meetings of authorities begin, but also and specifically of prayers led by elected officials. . It is therefore partly in the name of tradition that the Court has ruled these prayers legal.

The Court also considers that the public present at the meetings of the commission being made up of adults, prayers do not present any risk to the beliefs of everyone. Judges assume that adults are unlikely to be brainwashed or pressured by speech alone they would rather not hear. There is no risk for her that listeners disenchanted with Christianity will be affected by the mere contact of the commissioners directing the moments of prayer.

In his dissenting opinion, Judge J. Harvie Wilkinson III, disputes the interpretation of his two majority colleagues in front of him. This jurisprudence, he says, highlights the reason why the Founding Fathers of the American Republic constitutionally established the separation of church and state. And to warn:

“When state officials so emphatically refer to a particular religion in almost every prayer over such a period, that faith comes to be seen as the true faith, and not just that of those who pray but like that of the public power itself. When the seat of authority begins to resemble a house of prayer, the values ​​of religious practice are threatened, and the danger of a division based on belief increases as a result. "

An authorization that the Supreme Court could contradict

If the reasoning of Wilkinson J. is seriously founded from an ethical point of view, he is wrong to attribute to the Founding Fathers and to the first legislator a will which was literally not theirs. On the one hand, from the day following the vote on the amendment, Congress asked George Washington to proclaim “A day of public gratitude and prayer to be observed in gratitude, with hearts full of gratitude for the favors of Almighty God,” as recalled in his dissenting opinion on McCreary v. ACLU, Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, who died last February.

On the other hand, the letter of the First Amendment is clear: “Congress shall not make any law relating to the establishment of a religion, or the prohibition of its free exercise; or to limit freedom of expression, of the press or the right of citizens to assemble peacefully or to petition the Government for redress for wrongs suffered. The text only concerns Congress, ie the Senate and the House of Representatives. It is by a broad interpretation that the Supreme Court of the United States has applied this text in cases concerning the federated states.

On the other hand, the god to which the American public power refers is a civil god, that of all Americans, whatever their beliefs. And it is in this vein that the " Discourse on the four freedoms Held by atheist President Franklin D. Roosevelt insisted on "the freedom of everyone to honor God as they see fit - anywhere in the world"; and it is in this logic that prayer meetings are authorized upstream of meetings organized by public authorities, no particular religion prevailing over another during prayer meetings, exclusivity being legal only if all participants share the same faith.

De facto and de jure, the Supreme Court is subtle about the expression of the religious message ; in the McCreary case in 2005, it declared unconstitutional the display of the Decalogue in courts of law, on the grounds that the intention was not educational but religious; in Van Orden v. Perry, still the same year, the same judges recognized the constitutionality of the presence, in the park of the Capitol in Austin, of a plaque supporting the Ten Commandments, the aim of the installation being educational, namely the fight against juvenile delinquency. . It is all about cases, and courts must consider cases against three criteria set out by the Supreme Court and combined in Lemon v. Kurtzman of 1971 - not used, however, in Van Orden jurisprudence: the practice must have a secular purpose, it must not promote or restrict religion, and it must not foster an undue entanglement of religion and state. The recitals of the decision of the Federal Court of Appeal seem to forget the criteria set by the Supreme Court.

The ACLU has already indicated that it will request the referral of the case to a chamber of 15 judges. Until the decision is rendered, the Federal Supreme Court may already have a replacement for Justice Scalia who was a proponent of reasonable accommodation, as was the Court of Appeal in this case.

Hans-Søren Dag

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