Supreme Court refuses to hear fight over North Carolina county prayer

The Supreme Court on Thursday refused to hear an appeal from county officials in North Carolina who argue they should be allowed to give a prayer at the start of public meetings. 

The Rowan Country Board of Commissioners had asked the court to reverse the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals ruling, which found the board’s prayer ritual violated the Constitution’s ban on government establishing one religion.

The case stems from a lawsuit three Rowan County residents brought challenging the payers given being given at board meetings. The five commissioners rotate the prayer duties and ask constituents to rise and join in, according to court documents.

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The 4th Circuit ruled that legislative prayer that respects each faith is a time-honored tradition, but Rowan County elevated and aligned itself with Christianity.

“We conclude that the Constitution does not allow what happened in Rowan County,” the court's opinion said. “The prayer practice served to identify the government with Christianity and risked conveying to citizens of minority faiths a message of exclusion.”

The Supreme Court did not give an explanation for its decision as is customary in orders. Justice Clarence Thomas joined by Justice Neil Gorsuch dissented from the court’s refusal to take the case. 

Thomas said the Fourth Circuit’s decision is “both unfaithful to our precedents and ahistorical.”

“It also conflicts with a recent en banc decision of the Sixth Circuit,” he said.

Thomas said the 6th Circuit in 2017 upheld a municipal prayer policy virtually identical to the one in Rowan.

“Thus, the Sixth and Fourth Circuits are now split on the legality of legislator-led prayer,” he said. 

“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 this conflict.”

The High Court's refusal was in the last orders revealed by the court on Thursday. The Court's term adjourned for the summer on Wednesday.