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Lund v. Rowan County

United States Court of Appeals, Fourth Circuit

July 14, 2017

NANCY LUND; LIESA MONTAG-SIEGEL; ROBERT VOELKER, Plaintiffs - Appellees,
v.
ROWAN COUNTY, NORTH CAROLINA, Defendant-Appellant. STATE OF WEST VIRGINIA; STATE OF ALABAMA; STATE OF ARIZONA; STATE OF ARKANSAS; STATE OF FLORIDA; STATE OF INDIANA; STATE OF MICHIGAN; STATE OF NEBRASKA; STATE OF NEVADA; STATE OF OHIO; STATE OF OKLAHOMA; STATE OF SOUTH CAROLINA; STATE OF TEXAS; MEMBERS OF CONGRESS; UNITED STATES JUSTICE FOUNDATION; CONSERVATIVE LEGAL DEFENSE AND EDUCATION FUND; CITIZENS UNITED; CITIZENS UNITED FOUNDATION, Amici Supporting Appellant, AMERICANS UNITED FOR SEPARATION OF CHURCH AND STATE; AMERICAN HUMANIST ASSOCIATION; ANTI-DEFAMATION LEAGUE; CENTER FOR INQUIRY; FREEDOM FROM RELIGION FOUNDATION; INTERFAITH ALLIANCE FOUNDATION; SIKH COALITION; UNION FOR REFORM JUDAISM; WOMEN OF REFORM JUDAISM, Amici Supporting Appellees.

          Argued: March 22, 2017

         ON REHEARING EN BANC

         Appeal from the United States District Court for the Middle District of North Carolina, at Greensboro. James A. Beaty, Jr., Senior District Judge. (1:13-cv-00207-JAB-JLW)

         ARGUED:

          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.

          Elbert Lin, OFFICE OF THE ATTORNEY GENERAL OF WEST VIRGINIA, Charleston, West Virginia, for Amici State of West Virginia and 12 Other States.

         ON BRIEF:

          David C. Gibbs, III, THE NATIONAL CENTER FOR LIFE AND LIBERTY, Flower Mound, Texas; John C. Sullivan, Dallas, Texas, Judd E. Stone, Michael E. Kenneally, MORGAN, LEWIS & BOCKIUS LLP, Washington, D.C.; David A. Cortman, Brett B. Harvey, ALLIANCE DEFENDING FREEDOM, Scottsdale, Arizona; Hiram S. Sasser, III, Kenneth A. Klukowski, LIBERTY INSTITUTE, Plano, Texas, for Appellant.

          Daniel Mach, Heather L. Weaver, AMERICAN CIVIL LIBERTIES UNION FOUNDATION, Washington, D.C., for Appellees.

          Patrick Morrisey, Attorney General, Julie Marie Blake, Christopher W. Carlson, Assistant Attorneys General, OFFICE OF THE ATTORNEY GENERAL OF WEST VIRGINIA, Charleston, West Virginia, for Amicus State of West Virginia;

          Luther Strange, Attorney General, OFFICE OF THE ATTORNEY GENERAL OF ALABAMA, Montgomery, Alabama, for Amicus State of Alabama;

          Mark Brnovich, Attorney General, OFFICE OF THE ATTORNEY GENERAL OF ARIZONA, Phoenix, Arizona, for Amicus State of Arizona;

          Leslie Rutledge, Attorney General, OFFICE OF THE ATTORNEY GENERAL OF ARKANSAS, Little Rock, Arkansas, for Amicus State of Arkansas;

          Pamela Jo Bondi, Attorney General, OFFICE OF THE ATTORNEY GENERAL OF FLORIDA, Tallahassee, Florida, for Amicus State of Florida;

          Gregory F. Zoeller, Attorney General, OFFICE OF THE ATTORNEY GENERAL OF INDIANA, Indianapolis, Indiana, for Amicus State of Indiana;

          Bill Schuette, Attorney General, OFFICE OF THE ATTORNEY GENERAL OF MICHIGAN, Lansing, Michigan, for Amicus State of Michigan;

          Douglas J. Peterson, Attorney General, OFFICE OF THE ATTORNEY GENERAL OF NEBRASKA, Lincoln, Nebraska, for Amicus State of Nebraska;

          Adam Paul Laxalt, Attorney General, OFFICE OF THE ATTORNEY GENERAL OF NEVADA, Carson City, Nevada, for Amicus State of Nevada;

          Michael DeWine, Attorney General, OFFICE OF THE ATTORNEY GENERAL OF OHIO, Columbus, Ohio, for Amicus State of Ohio;

          E. Scott Pruitt, Attorney General, OFFICE OF THE ATTORNEY GENERAL OF OKLAHOMA, Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, for Amicus State of Oklahoma;

          Alan Wilson, Attorney General, OFFICE OF THE ATTORNEY GENERAL OF SOUTH CAROLINA, Columbia, South Carolina, for Amicus State of South Carolina;

          Ken Paxton, Attorney General, OFFICE OF THE ATTORNEY GENERAL OF TEXAS, Austin, Texas, for Amicus State of Texas.

          Sean Sandoloski, Dallas, Texas, Thomas G. Hungar, Douglas R. Cox, Alex Gesch, Lindsay S. See, Russell Balikian, GIBSON, DUNN & CRUTCHER LLP, Washington, D.C., for Amici Members of Congress.

          Joseph W. Miller, Ramona, California, for Amicus United States Justice Foundation;

          Michael Boos, Washington, D.C., for Amici Citizens United and Citizens United Foundation;

          William J. Olson, Herbert W. Titus, Jeremiah L. Morgan, Robert J. Olson, John S. Miles, WILLIAM J. OLSON, P.C., Vienna, Virginia, for Amici United States Justice Foundation, Citizens United, Citizens United Foundation, and Conservative Legal Defense and Education Fund.

          Richard B. Katskee, Gregory M. Lipper, AMERICANS UNITED FOR SEPARATION OF CHURCH AND STATE, Washington, D.C., for Amici Americans United for Separation of Church and State, American Humanist Association, Anti-Defamation League, Center for Inquiry, Freedom From Religion Foundation, Interfaith Alliance Foundation, Sikh Coalition, Union for Reform Judaism, and Women of Reform Judaism.

          Before GREGORY, Chief Judge, and WILKINSON, NIEMEYER, MOTZ, TRAXLER, KING, SHEDD, DUNCAN, AGEE, KEENAN, WYNN, DIAZ, FLOYD, THACKER, and HARRIS, Circuit Judges.

          WILKINSON, CIRCUIT JUDGE:

         This case requires that we decide whether Rowan County's practice of lawmaker-led sectarian prayer runs afoul of the Establishment Clause. For years on end, the elected members of the county's Board of Commissioners composed and delivered pointedly sectarian invocations. They rotated the prayer opportunity amongst themselves; no one else was permitted to offer an invocation. The prayers referenced one and only one faith and veered from time to time into overt proselytization. Before each invocation, attendees were requested to rise and often asked to pray with the commissioners. The prayers served to open meetings of our most basic unit of government and directly preceded the business session of the meeting. The district court, applying the Supreme Court's decision in Town of Greece v. Galloway, 134 S.Ct. 1811 (2014), held the county's prayer practice unconstitutional. A panel of this court reversed. See Lund v. Rowan Cty., 837 F.3d 407 (4th Cir. 2016). The full court then granted rehearing en banc.

         We conclude that the Constitution does not allow what happened in Rowan County. The prayer practice served to identify the government with Christianity and risked conveying to citizens of minority faiths a message of exclusion. And because the commissioners were the exclusive prayer-givers, Rowan County's invocation practice falls well outside the more inclusive, minister-oriented practice of legislative prayer described in Town of Greece. Indeed, if elected representatives invite their constituents to participate in prayers invoking a single faith for meeting upon meeting, year after year, it is difficult to imagine constitutional limits to sectarian prayer practice.

         The great promise of the Establishment Clause is that religion will not operate as an instrument of division in our nation. Consistent with this principle, there is a time-honored tradition of legislative prayer that reflects the respect of each faith for other faiths and the aspiration, common to so many creeds, of finding higher meaning and deeper purpose in these fleeting moments each of us spends upon this earth. Instead of drawing on this tradition, Rowan County elevated one religion above all others and aligned itself with that faith. It need not be so. As the history of legislative invocations demonstrates, the desire of this good county for prayer at the opening of its public sessions can be realized in many ways that further both religious exercise and religious tolerance.

         I.

         A.

         We begin by describing the challenged prayer practice itself. Rowan County, North Carolina is governed by an elected body known as the Rowan County Board of Commissioners. The five-member Board convenes twice a month. The commissioners sit at the front of the room facing their constituents.

         Each Board meeting begins in the same way: with a prayer composed and delivered by one of the commissioners. After calling the meeting to order, the chairperson asks everyone in attendance-commissioners and constituents alike-to stand up. All five Board members rise and bow their heads, along with most of the attendees. A commissioner then asks the community to join him in worship, using phrases such as "Let us pray, " "Let's pray together, " or "Please pray with me." The invocations end with a communal "Amen, " and the Pledge of Allegiance follows a moment later. Next, the Board typically approves the previous meeting's minutes, schedules future items of business, and holds a public comment period before continuing on to the day's work.

         Board members rotate the prayer opportunity amongst themselves as a matter of long-standing custom. The content of the prayer is "entirely at the discretion of the commissioner." J.A. 284.[1] No one outside the Board is permitted to offer an invocation.

         The prayers are invariably and unmistakably Christian in content. Over the five-and-a-half years for which video recordings are available, 97% of the Board's prayers mentioned "Jesus, " "Christ, " or the "Savior." See Lund v. Rowan Cty., 103 F.Supp.3d 712, 714 (M.D. N.C. 2015). No religion other than Christianity was represented. Sectarian references often appeared at the conclusion of the prayer. See, e.g., S.A. 14 (prayer of April 21, 2008) ("I ask all these things in the name of Jesus, the King of Kings and the Lord of Lords. Amen."). Several prayers confessed sin and asked for forgiveness on the community's behalf. See, e.g., S.A. 30 (prayer of August 1, 2011) ("Lord, we confess that we have not loved you with all our heart, and mind and strength, and that we have not loved one another as Christ loves us. We have also neglected to follow the guidance of your Holy Spirit, and have allowed sin to enter into our lives."). Other prayers implied that Christianity was superior to other faiths. See, e.g., S.A. 33 (prayer of March 5, 2012) ("[A]s we pick up the Cross, we will proclaim His name above all names, as the only way to eternal life."). On occasion, Board members appeared to implore attendees to accept Christianity. See, e.g., S.A. 21 (prayer of October 5, 2009) ("Father, I pray that all may be one as you, Father, are in Jesus, and He in you. I pray that they may be one in you, that the world may believe that you sent Jesus to save us from our sins.").

         In response to the growing controversy over the prayer practice, a number of commissioners publicly announced that they would continue delivering Christian invocations for the community's benefit. Prior to the filing of this lawsuit, the American Civil Liberties Union of North Carolina Legal Foundation notified the Board that sectarian prayers violated the Establishment Clause under then-applicable Fourth Circuit precedent. The Board did not respond, but several members stated that they would not stop praying in Jesus' name. "[A]sking for guidance for my decisions from Jesus, " one commissioner explained, "is the best I, and Rowan County, can ever hope for." Lund, 103 F.Supp.3d at 715 (quoting Commissioner Ford). Another commissioner remarked, "I volunteer to be the first to go to jail for this cause . . . ." Id. (quoting Commissioner Sides). After the district court enjoined the county prayer practice, a third commissioner issued a statement noting, "I will always pray in the name of Jesus. . . . God will lead me through this persecution and I will be His instrument." See Pls.' Mem. Law Supp. Mot. Summ. J. at 9 (quoting Commissioner Barber).

         B.

         The three plaintiffs in this case are long-time residents of Rowan County. Active in the community, each one has attended multiple Board meetings to follow issues of public importance. Nancy Lund, a volunteer tutor, cares about school funding. So does Liesa Montag-Siegel, a retired middle school librarian. Robert Voelker is interested in education policy and the county's provision of social services. The plaintiffs, none of whom identify as Christian, encountered prayers of the sort described above at Board meetings.

         In March 2013, Lund and her co-plaintiffs filed this action against Rowan County, asserting that the Board's prayer practice violated the Establishment Clause. They argued that the Board, by delivering exclusively Christian prayers, affiliated the county with Christianity, advanced Christianity, and coerced the plaintiffs into participating in religious exercises. According to the plaintiffs, the prayers "sen[t] a message that the County and the Board favor Christians" and caused the plaintiffs to feel "excluded from the community and the local political process." J.A. 11-12. The plaintiffs also averred that they felt compelled to stand for the invocations to avoid sticking out. Voelker added that he felt pressured to stand because "the invocation is immediately followed by the Pledge of Allegiance, for which [he] feels strongly that he needs to stand." J.A. 12. At one meeting, Voelker proposed a nondenominational prayer and later worried that his "open questioning" of the Board's sectarian invocations would impair his advocacy on other matters. J.A. 13. The plaintiffs sought declaratory and injunctive relief as well as a preliminary injunction against sectarian prayers at Board meetings.

         Rowan County responded with affidavits from each Board member adding new details on the prayer practice. According to these affidavits, the Board has no written policy on the invocations. The commissioners also claimed that the Board has "no expectation . . . regarding the form or content" of the prayers, J.A. 291, which are offered "for the edification and benefit of the commissioners and to solemnize the meeting, " J.A. 293. Finally, the affidavits clarified that attendees may leave the room or arrive after the invocation and that the Board "respects the right of any citizen" to remain seated or disregard the invocation. J.A. 277.

         After the district court preliminarily enjoined the Board from delivering sectarian prayers, the Supreme Court decided Town of Greece v. Galloway. The Court upheld the town's practice of opening its legislative sessions with sectarian prayers and ruled that sectarian prayers, while subject to some limits, are constitutional as a general matter.

         In light of Town of Greece, both the plaintiffs and Rowan County moved for summary judgment. The district court held that Rowan County's prayer practice remained unconstitutional and issued a permanent injunction. Lund, 103 F.Supp.3d at 733-34. The court found that the practice was unconstitutionally coercive and "deviate[d] from the long-standing history and tradition" of legislative prayer. Id. at 723. That tradition, as articulated by the Supreme Court, involved the delivery of prayers by "a chaplain, separate from the legislative body." Id. Here, the court reasoned, the prayers were "exclusively prepared and controlled" and delivered by the government, "constituting a much greater and more intimate government involvement in the prayer practice than that at issue in Town of Greece." Id. Further, restricting the prayer opportunity to the Board resulted in "a closed-universe of prayer-givers . . . who favored religious beliefs believed to be common to the majority of voters in Rowan County." Id. The district court noted that although lawmaker-led prayer "is not per se unconstitutional, " the prayer-giver's identity is relevant to the constitutional inquiry "in relation to the surrounding circumstances." Id. at 722 n.4.

         On appeal, this court reversed the district court's judgment and upheld the county's prayer practice. Lund, 837 F.3d at 411-31. The panel majority recognized that "[t]he five commissioners, all Christian, 'maintain[ed] exclusive and complete control over the content of the prayers.'" Id. at 434 (quoting Lund, 103 F.Supp.3d at 733). Nonetheless, the majority held that the identity of the prayer-giver was not "a significant constitutional distinction, at least in the context of this case." Id. at 420. Having discounted the source of the prayer as a relevant consideration, the majority next examined the other elements of the Board's practice seriatim. The majority held that the practice was consistent with tradition as outlined in Town of Greece and was not coercive. Id. at 430.

         Judge Wilkinson dissented. The dissent argued that the "combination of legislators as the sole prayer-givers, official invitation for audience participation, consistently sectarian prayers referencing but a single faith, and the intimacy of a local governmental setting exceed[ed] even a broad reading of Town of Greece." Id. at 431 (Wilkinson, J., dissenting) (hereinafter panel dissent). After examining "the interaction among elements specific to this case, " id. at 433, the dissent concluded that the county's prayer practice was unconstitutional.

         We granted rehearing en banc, and we now affirm. Reviewing the district court's decision de novo, see Simpson v. Chesterfield Cty. Bd. of Supervisors, 404 F.3d 276, 280 (4th Cir. 2005), we hold that Rowan County's prayer practice violated the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.

         II.

         "[A] moment of prayer or quiet reflection sets the mind[s] [of legislators] to a higher purpose and thereby eases the task of governing." Town of Greece, 134 S.Ct. at 1825 (plurality opinion). Legislative prayer "lends gravity to public business, reminds lawmakers to transcend petty differences in pursuit of a higher purpose, and expresses a common aspiration to a just and peaceful society." Id. at 1818 (majority opinion). Owing to its unique history and longstanding role in public life, legislative prayer occupies "a field of Establishment Clause jurisprudence with its own set of boundaries and guidelines." Simpson, 404 F.3d at 281.[2]

         But the general principles animating the Establishment Clause remain relevant even in the context of legislative prayer. First, the Constitution "affirmatively mandates accommodation, not merely tolerance, of all religions, and forbids hostility toward any." Lynch v. Donnelly, 465 U.S. 668, 673 (1984). Second, the government "may not coerce anyone to support or participate in religion or its exercise, or otherwise act in a way which 'establishes a [state] religion or religious faith, or tends to do so.'" Lee v. Weisman, 505 U.S. 577, 587 (1992) (quoting Lynch, 465 U.S. at 678). By "ensuring governmental neutrality in matters of religion, " Gillette v. United States, 401 U.S. 437, 449 (1971), the Establishment Clause safeguards religious liberty and wards off "political division along religious lines, " Lemon v. Kurtzman, 403 U.S. 602, 622 (1971). An instrument of social peace, the Establishment Clause does not become less so when social rancor runs exceptionally high.

         In addition, "[b]y pairing the Free Exercise Clause with the Establishment Clause, " the Framers sought to prevent government from choosing sides on matters of faith and to protect religious minorities from exclusion or punishment at the hands of the state. Lund, 837 F.3d at 438 (panel dissent). "Americans are encouraged to practice and celebrate their faith but not to establish it through the state." Id.

         In the legislative prayer context, the Supreme Court has given meaning to the abstract guarantees of the Establishment Clause by considering "historical practices and understandings." Town of Greece, 134 S.Ct. at 1819 (internal quotation marks omitted). This history "shed[s] light on how the Founders viewed the Establishment Clause in relation to legislative prayer." Lund, 837 F.3d at 414. The resulting principles, first elucidated in Marsh v. Chambers, 463 U.S. 783 (1983), and refined in Town of Greece, reflect "what history reveals was the contemporaneous understanding" of the Establishment Clause. Lynch, 465 U.S. at 673.

         Marsh and Town of Greece, however, in no way sought to dictate the outcome of every subsequent case. The Court acknowledged that it has not "define[d] the precise boundary of the Establishment Clause." Town of Greece, 134 S.Ct. at 1819. Accordingly, when the historical principles articulated by the Supreme Court do not direct a particular result, a court must conduct a "fact-sensitive" review of the prayer practice. Id. at 1825 (plurality opinion).

         Marsh and Town of Greece do not settle whether Rowan County's prayer practice is constitutional. Those decisions did not concern lawmaker-led prayer, nor did they involve the other unusual aspects of the county's prayer practice. And they certainly did not address the confluence of these elements. That said, Marsh and Town of Greece provide our doctrinal starting point. We shall begin by describing the principles they developed and then proceed to apply those principles to this case.

         A.

         In Marsh v. Chambers, the Supreme Court upheld the Nebraska legislature's practice of opening its sessions with nonsectarian prayers delivered by a paid chaplain. 463 U.S. at 793 n. 14. The Court noted that legislative prayer "has coexisted with the principles of disestablishment and religious freedom" since the colonial period. Id. at 786. In addition, the First Congress "authorized the appointment of paid chaplains" shortly after finalizing language for the First Amendment. Id. at 788. Accordingly, the Court reasoned, the Framers could not have viewed "paid legislative chaplains and opening prayers as a violation of that Amendment." Id.

         Marsh, then, stands for the principle that "legislative prayer, while religious in nature, has long been understood as compatible with the Establishment Clause." Town of Greece, 134 S.Ct. at 1818. But even as the Court concluded that legislative prayer is constitutional as a general matter, Marsh recognized certain limits on the practice. Namely, the prayer opportunity may not be "exploited to proselytize or advance [a particular faith] or to disparage any other." Marsh, 463 U.S. at 794-95.

         Thirty years later, in Town of Greece v. Galloway, the Court held that sectarian prayer is not by itself unconstitutional. 134 S.Ct. at 1820. In that case, the town board in Greece, New York began its monthly meetings with sectarian invocations given by volunteer guest ministers. Id. at 1816. Because "nearly all of the congregations in town turned out to be Christian, " most of the ministers were Christian too. Id. at 1824. Nonetheless, the town also invited a Jewish layman and Baha'i practitioner to deliver prayers and granted a Wiccan priestess's request to do so. Id. at 1817. The town "neither reviewed the prayers in advance of the meetings nor provided guidance as to their tone or content." Id. at 1816.

         Invoking the historical tradition first described in Marsh, the Court held that the Establishment Clause does not require "nonsectarian or ecumenical prayer as a single, fixed standard." Id. at 1820. As a result, "a challenge based solely on the content of a prayer will not likely establish a constitutional violation." Id. at 1824 (emphasis added).

         At the same time, the Court was quick to clarify that invocation content is still germane to the constitutionality of a prayer practice. The "relevant constraint" on faith-specific prayer "derives from its place at the opening of legislative sessions, where it is meant to lend gravity to the occasion and reflect values long part of the Nation's heritage." Id. at 1823. Prayer that "invites lawmakers to reflect upon shared ideals and common ends before they embark on the fractious business of governing" serves that purpose. Id. But the Establishment Clause does not countenance prayers that "denigrate nonbelievers or religious minorities, threaten damnation, or preach conversion" or, per Marsh, prayers that proselytize or advance or disparage a particular faith. Id.

         Applying these principles, the Court concluded that the sectarian prayers offered by guest ministers fell within the historical tradition outlined in Marsh. Id. at 1824. The Court also emphasized that Greece selected chaplains without discriminating among faiths and "welcome[d] a prayer by any minister or layman who wished to give one." Id.

         Finally, the Court concluded that the town's prayer practice did not coerce participation by meeting attendees. Id. at 1828. While no single test commanded a majority, Justice Kennedy's opinion for the plurality explained that "[t]he analysis would be different if town board members directed the public to participate in the prayers, singled out dissidents for opprobrium, or indicated that their decisions might be influenced by a person's acquiescence in the prayer opportunity." Id. at 1826.

         B.

         Marsh and Town of Greece thus show a Court generally supportive of legislative prayer, careful to emphasize that sectarian references are permissible in proper context, but cautioning that the prayer opportunity not get out of hand. This case differs from Marsh and Town of Greece in two crucial respects that, in combination with other aspects of the Board's prayers, give rise to an unprecedented prayer practice. First, whereas guest ministers delivered the prayers in those cases, the legislators themselves gave the invocations in Rowan County. Second, the prayer opportunity here was exclusively reserved for the commissioners, creating a "closed-universe" of prayer-givers. Lund, 103 F.Supp.3d at 723. This case is therefore "more than a factual wrinkle on Town of Greece." Lund, 837 F.3d at 431 (panel dissent). "It is a conceptual world apart." Id.

         To begin, Town of Greece simply does not address the constitutionality of lawmaker-led prayer. The Court has "consistently discussed legislative prayer practices in terms of invited ministers, clergy, or volunteers providing the prayer." Lund, 103 F.Supp.3d at 722. And in elaborating on our national tradition of legislative prayer-the history informing its interpretation of the Establishment Clause-the Court has "not once described a situation in which the legislators themselves gave the invocation." Id. Town of Greece instead recounts how "[t]he First Congress made it an early item of business to appoint and pay official chaplains, " adding that "both the House and Senate have maintained the office virtually uninterrupted since that time." 134 S.Ct. at 1818 (emphasis added).

         To the extent that Town of Greece touches on the constitutional relevance of the prayer-giver's identity, the decision takes for granted the use of outside clergy. The Court emphasized that the town "neither edit[ed] [n]or approv[ed] prayers" offered by the guest ministers. Id. at 1822. Addressing the fact that attendees were asked to stand, the plurality reasoned that "[t]hese requests . . . came not from town leaders but from the guest ministers, who presumably are accustomed to directing their congregations in this way." Id. at 1826. And "[t]he inclusion of a brief, ceremonial prayer as part of a larger exercise in civic recognition, " the plurality explained, "suggests that its purpose and effect are to acknowledge religious leaders and the institutions they represent." Id. at 1827.

         Thus the historical "practice of prayer, " at least as described by the Supreme Court, is not entirely "similar to that now challenged." Marsh, 463 U.S. at 791. In Rowan County, the commissioners themselves, not guest ministers, led the community in prayer, and they composed each invocation "according to their personal faiths." Lund, 103 F.Supp.3d at 724; see J.A. 275-94 (affidavits of the commissioners). Relative to Town of Greece, the county's prayer practice featured "much greater and more intimate government involvement." Lund, 103 F.Supp.3d at 723. The conspicuous absence of case law on lawmaker-led prayer is likely no accident. As elaborated below, this type of prayer both identifies the government with religion more strongly than ordinary invocations and heightens the constitutional risks posed by requests to participate and by sectarian prayers.

         This is especially true where legislators are the only eligible prayer-givers. Both Town of Greece and Marsh involved open, inclusive prayer opportunities. In the former case, the town "at no point excluded or denied an opportunity to a would-be prayer giver, " and town leaders affirmed that "a minister or layperson of any persuasion, including an atheist, could give the invocation." Town of Greece, 134 S.Ct. at 1816. Marsh emphasized that the ordinary chaplain "was not the only clergyman heard by the Legislature; guest chaplains . . . officiated at the request of various legislators and as substitutes during [the regular chaplain's] absences." Marsh, 463 U.S. at 793. The openness evinced by these other elected bodies contrasts starkly with Rowan County's policy of restricting the prayer opportunity to the commissioners alone.

         Marsh and Town of Greece, while supportive of legislative prayer, were measured and balanced decisions. See 134 S.Ct. at 1824-25 (describing the proper inquiry as "fact-sensitive" and the analysis as "an inquiry into the prayer opportunity as a whole"). The dissents in this case, by contrast, are wholly bereft of any sense of balance. Any balanced assessment of Marsh and Town of Greece makes clear the dissents' lack of fidelity to those decisions. The dissents' reading of Town of Greece is faithful only to what the dissents wish that opinion would say, not to what it actually said. As Town of Greece makes plain, the Court has never approved anything like what has transpired here or anything resembling the dissents' invitation to local government to work sectarian practices into public meetings in whatever manner it wishes. Id. at 1826. Rather Town of Greece told the inferior federal courts to do exactly what the majority has done here- that is to grant local governments leeway in designing a prayer practice that brings the values of religious solemnity and higher meaning to public meetings, but at the same time to recognize that there remain situations that in their totality exceed what Town of Greece identified as permissible bounds. It is the dissents' unwillingness to identify any meaningful limit to any sort of sectarian prayer practice in local governmental functions that draws their fidelity to Town of Greece into serious question.

         C.

         The county, bolstered by amici, argues that there is "a long tradition of opening legislative sessions-at all levels of government-with prayer by legislators themselves." Supp. Br. of Appellant at 3. Members of Congress have occasionally delivered invocations in the Senate and House of Representatives. See Br. of Amici Curiae Members of Congress at 6. The state amici, drawing on a national survey, assert that a majority of state legislatures allow lawmakers to offer invocations "on at least some occasions, " including seven of the ten state legislative chambers in the Fourth Circuit. Br. of Amici Curiae State of West Virginia and 12 Other States at 13-14. Many county and city governments also permit elected officials to deliver invocations. Id. at 15. Setting aside the question of whether contemporaneous practices provide compelling evidence of historical tradition, it is clear that lawmaker-led prayer is far from rare.

         The evidence collected by Rowan County and amici, however, only reinforces our conclusion that the county's prayer practice falls outside the tradition of legislative prayer elaborated in Marsh and Town of Greece. First, while lawmakers may occasionally lead an invocation, this phenomenon appears to be the exception to the rule, at least at the state and federal levels. Amici members of Congress note that "Senators have, from time to time, delivered the prayer, " but that "[m]embers routinely invite guest ministers" to offer the invocation. Br. of Amici Curiae Members of Congress at 6-7 (citations omitted). The survey cited by the state amici clarifies that "it is a tradition for a chaplain to be selected to serve the [legislative] body." National Conference of State Legislatures, Inside the Legislative Process 5-147 (2002) (hereinafter NCSL Survey). Twenty-seven state legislative chambers designate an official chaplain. Id. Seventy-nine invite "visiting chaplains [who] usually rotate among religions." Id. Second, Rowan County and amici elide the distinction between extending the prayer opportunity to lawmakers (as many legislatures do) and restricting it to those lawmakers (as Rowan County did here). For the reasons we discuss below, the latter approach poses greater risks under the Establishment Clause.

         In marshaling the historical and contemporaneous evidence of lawmaker-led prayer, Rowan County and its amici are waging war against a phantom. The plaintiffs have never contended that the Establishment Clause prohibits legislators from giving invocations, nor did the district court so conclude. See Lund, 103 F.Supp.3d at 722 n.4 ("[T]he Commissioners' provision of prayers is not per se unconstitutional. . . . Under a different, inclusive prayer practice, Commissioners might be able to provide prayers . . . ."). Like the plaintiffs and the district court, we "would not for a moment cast all legislator-led prayer as constitutionally suspect." Lund, 837 F.3d at 433 (panel dissent). Religious faith is "a source of personal guidance, strength, and comfort." Id. at 431. And legislative prayer's "solemnizing effect for lawmakers is likely heightened when they personally utter the prayer." Id. at 433. Accordingly, the Establishment Clause indeed allows lawmakers to deliver invocations in appropriate circumstances. Legislator-led prayer is not inherently unconstitutional.

         We simply conclude, as the district court did, that the identity of the prayer-giver is relevant to the constitutional inquiry. Establishment Clause questions are by their nature "matter[s] of degree, " presupposing some acceptable practices and others that cross the line. Van Orden v. Perry, 545 U.S. 677, 704 (2005) (Breyer, J., concurring in the judgment); see also Lynch, 465 U.S. at 678-79 ("In each case, the inquiry calls for line drawing; no fixed, per se rule can be framed. . . . The line between permissible relationships and those barred by the [Establishment] Clause can no more be straight and unwavering than due process can be defined in a single stroke or phrase or test."). Prayers led by lawmakers, like sectarian prayers, may violate the Establishment Clause in some circumstances. And just as sectarian prayer has its limits, so, too, does legislator-led prayer.

         Within the universe of prayers delivered by legislators, the constitutionality of a particular government's approach ultimately will depend on other aspects of the prayer practice. In fact, the very survey proffered by state amici illustrates the importance of viewing lawmaker-led prayer in context. The survey recommends that the prayer-giver "be especially sensitive to expressions that may be unsuitable to members of some faiths" when "opening and closing the prayer." NCSL Survey at 5-146. Because legislator-led invocations vary so widely, "[w]e cannot discern from the general survey proffered by amici which prayers were primarily for the benefit of legislators or commissioners as in Town of Greece and which focused, as the prayers did here, on requesting the citizens at the meeting to pray." Lund, 837 F.3d at 433 (panel dissent). "Nor do we know from the survey what percentage of prayers given by elected officials generally contain sectarian references or proselytizing exhortations, or which are non-denominational or delivered by legislators of diverse faiths." Id.

         In sum, the elected members of Rowan County's Board of Commissioners composed and delivered their own sectarian prayers featuring but a single faith. They prevented anyone else from offering invocations. The Board's prayer practice thus pushes this case well outside the confines of Town of Greece and indeed outside the realm of lawmaker-led prayer itself. To see just how far outside those boundaries the prayer practice was, we must turn to the operation of the practice itself. Because Town of Greece does not resolve this challenge, we must decide whether the county's prayer practice, taken as a whole, exceeded constitutional limits on legislative prayer.

         III.

         "[W]hen a seat of government begins to resemble a house of worship, the values of religious observance are put at risk, and the danger of religious division rises accordingly." Lund, 837 F.3d at 431 (panel dissent). That is why "[t]he clearest command of the Establishment Clause is that one religious denomination cannot be officially preferred over another." Larson v. Valente, 456 U.S. 228, 244 (1982). Rowan County's prayer practice violated this maxim by so clearly identifying the government with a particular faith.

         Courts adjudicating a challenge to legislative prayer inquire "into the prayer opportunity as a whole, rather than into the contents of a single prayer." Town of Greece, 134 S.Ct. at 1824. They must conduct a "fact-sensitive" review of "the setting in which the prayer arises and the audience to whom it is directed, " id. at 1825 (plurality opinion), as well as "the pattern of prayers over time, " id. at 1827.

         As the exclusive prayer-givers, Rowan County's elected representatives-the very embodiment of the state-delivered sectarian invocations referencing one and only one religion. They asked their constituents to join them in worship. They did so at every meeting of a local governing body for many years. We examine each of these features in turn: commissioners as the sole prayer-givers; invocations that drew exclusively on Christianity and sometimes served to advance that faith; invitations to attendees to participate; and the local government setting.

         To respect the Supreme Court's insistence on a fact-sensitive inquiry, we must also pay close attention to the interplay between the various facets of the county's prayer practice. As previously noted, the invocations here were written and given by elected representatives acting in their official capacity. This fact interacts with the other aspects of the county's practice, altering their constitutional significance. Accordingly, we must evaluate these other elements through the lens of the prayer-giver's identity. We conclude that it is the combination of these elements-not any particular feature alone-that "threatens to blur the line between church and state to a degree unimaginable in Town of Greece." Lund, 837 F.3d at 435 (panel dissent).

         A.

         "It is a cornerstone principle of our Establishment Clause jurisprudence that 'it is no part of the business of government to compose official prayers . . . .'" Lee, 505 U.S. at 588 (quoting Engel v. Vitale, 370 U.S. 421, 425 (1962)). The government "is without power to prescribe . . . any particular form of prayer which is to be used as an official prayer in carrying on any program of governmentally sponsored religious activity." Engel, 370 U.S. at 430. The Court reiterated this foundational point in Town of Greece: "Our Government is prohibited from prescribing prayers to be recited in our public institutions in order to promote a preferred system of belief or code of moral behavior." 134 S.Ct. at 1822.

         But that is precisely what happened in Rowan County, where the five commissioners "maintain[ed] exclusive and complete control over the content of the prayers." Lund, 103 F.Supp.3d at 733. In Marsh, the prayer-giver was paid by the state. In Town of Greece, the prayer-giver was invited by the state. But in Rowan County, the prayer-giver was the state itself. The Board was thus "elbow-deep in the activities banned by the Establishment Clause-selecting and prescribing sectarian prayers." Lund, 837 F.3d at 434 (panel dissent).

         By arrogating the prayer opportunity to itself, the Board also restricted the number of faiths that could be referenced at its meetings. When guests are allowed to deliver invocations, as in Marsh and Town of Greece, legislators can easily expand the religions represented (perhaps in response to requests or on their own initiative). In upholding sectarian prayer, Town of Greece emphasized that legislatures are typically able and willing to accommodate diverse faiths. The way to acknowledge "our growing diversity, " the Court suggested, is "not by proscribing sectarian content but by welcoming ministers of many creeds." Town of Greece, 134 S.Ct. at 1820-21 (citing congressional prayers referencing Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam, and Judaism).

         Compare the county's rigid, restrictive practice with the more flexible, inclusive approach upheld in Town of Greece. Greece welcomed adherents of all faiths, allowing "any member of the public [the chance] to offer an invocation reflecting his or her own convictions." Id. at 1826 (plurality opinion). Most of the guest ministers were Christian, owing to the fact that "nearly all of the congregations in town turned out to be Christian." Id. at 1824 (majority opinion). To address complaints, however, the town "invited a Jewish layman and the chairman of the local Baha'i temple to deliver prayers" and granted a Wiccan priestess's request to participate. Id. at 1817. By opening its prayer opportunity to all comers, the town cultivated an atmosphere of greater tolerance and inclusion.

         Rowan County regrettably sent the opposite message. Instead of embracing religious pluralism and the possibility of a correspondingly diverse invocation practice, Rowan County's commissioners created a "closed-universe" of prayer-givers dependent solely on election outcomes. Lund, 103 F.Supp.3d at 723. The commissioners effectively insulated themselves from requests to diversify prayer content. And we cannot overlook the fact that the decision to restrict the prayer opportunity to the commissioners was not made by the citizens of Rowan County or some disinterested group but perpetuated by the commissioners themselves-all of whom identify as Protestant Christian. See J.A. 275 (United Methodist); J.A. 287 (same); J.A. 279 (Independent Baptist); J.A. 291 (same); J.A. 283 (Southern Baptist).

         For any Buddhists, Hindus, Jews, Muslims, Sikhs, or others who sought some modest place for their own faith or at least some less insistent invocation of the majority faith, the only recourse available was to elect a commissioner with similar religious views. See Br. of Appellant at 26. We find this point troubling. "[V]oters may wonder what kind of prayer a candidate of a minority religious persuasion would select if elected. Failure to pray in the name of the prevailing faith risks becoming a campaign issue or a tacit political debit, which in turn deters those of minority faiths from seeking office." Lund, 837 F.3d at 435 (panel dissent). Further, allowing the county to restrict to one the number of faiths represented at Board meetings would warp our inclusive tradition of legislative prayer into a zero-sum game of competing religious factions. Our Constitution safeguards religious pluralism; it does not sanction activity which would take us "one step closer to a de facto religious litmus test for public office." Id.

         Finally, we note that the risk of political division stemming from prayer practice conflict is no mere abstract matter. At one meeting, an individual who "expressed opposition to the Board's prayer practice" was booed and jeered by the audience. Lund, 103 F.Supp.3d at 729. In addition, the prayer practice became a campaign issue in the 2016 Board elections. The two incumbent commissioners favored continuing the county's defense of the prayer practice, while two challengers opposed it. See Supp. Br. of Appellees at 16 n.6. The incumbents ultimately prevailed. Id. Almost four decades ago, the Supreme Court cautioned that "political division along religious lines . . . is a threat to the normal political process, " and is therefore "one of the principal evils against which the First Amendment was intended to protect." Lemon, 403 U.S. at 622. Time has done nothing to diminish the salience of this warning.

         B.

         Having structured the prayer opportunity so that Board members alone could give voice to their religious convictions, the commissioners unceasingly and exclusively invoked Christianity. Even more problematic, the prayer practice at times "promote[d]" Christianity, the commissioners' "preferred system of belief." Town of Greece, 134 S.Ct. at 1822.

         Rowan County makes the entirely fair point that courts must not become censors of public prayer. The Supreme Court echoed this concern, warning courts away from becoming "supervisors and censors of religious speech." Id. A single prayer will thus not "despoil a practice that on the whole reflects and embraces our tradition" of legislative prayer. Id. at 1824. At the same time, however, courts must decide the case before them, which cannot be done without "review[ing] the pattern of prayers over time." Id. at 1826-27 (plurality opinion). Where even the most cursory look reveals a constitutionally problematic prayer practice, courts have no choice but to examine the entire record, which of course includes the invocations. A proper sensitivity toward the dangers of judicial overreach in this area cannot divest us of a duty which if not performed would grant free rein to governmental sectarian abuse.

         The lead dissent decries this inquiry as "judicial review run amok."[3] Infra Lead Dissent at 98. But while judicial review of prayer practices might indeed pose a danger in some instances, there is no danger here. Every single individual in Rowan County remains free to pray as he or she sees fit and in the individual or collective setting that he or she finds most meaningful. What government is not free to do, however, is link itself persistently and relentlessly to a single faith. See Larson, 456 U.S. at 244 ("The clearest command of the Establishment Clause is that one religious denomination cannot be officially preferred over another."). This evident an identification of the state with one and only one faith is not, we repeat, some marginal or peripheral constitutional violation that we can just shrug off and wish away. For to do so here would wish away the Establishment Clause itself. The overwhelming majority of the Board's invocations referenced tenets of Christianity. Over a period of more than five years, only 4 of 143 prayers were non-sectarian. Lund, 103 F.Supp.3d at 714. The remaining 139 prayers, or 97%, "use[d] ideas or images identified with [Christianity], " Lee, 505 U.S. at 588, such as "Jesus, " "Christ, " or the "Savior, " Lund, 103 F.Supp.3d at 714. No other religion was ever represented in the invocations. Id. Sectarian references were especially common at the conclusion of the prayer. To list but a few representative examples: "I ask this in the name of the King of Kings, the Lord of Lords, Jesus Christ, " S.A. 33 (prayer of March 5, 2012); "[I] ask these things in the name of Jesus and for the sake of His Kingdom, " S.A. 15 (prayer of June 2, 2008); "For the sake of your Son, our Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, " S.A. 31 (prayer of October 3, 2011); and "In Jesus' name we pray, " S.A. 22 (prayer of November 16, 2009). Several invocations delved into the finer points of Christian theology. One prayer during the holiday season began, "[W]e'd like to thank you for the Virgin Birth, we'd like to thank you for the Cross at Calvary, and we'd like to thank you for the resurrection." S.A. 12 (prayer of December 3, 2007). Another remarked, "Father God, . . . [w]e thank you so much for sending your Son Jesus Christ to this world, and we always remember that this time of year, Lord, and we should remember it always." S.A. 27 (prayer of December 6, 2010).

         Town of Greece instructs courts to consider a prayer practice from the perspective of the "reasonable observer, " who is presumed to be "acquainted with [the] tradition" of legislative prayer. 134 S.Ct. at 1825 (plurality opinion). Although "adult citizens, firm in their own beliefs, can tolerate and perhaps appreciate a ceremonial prayer delivered by a person of a different faith, " id. at 1823 (majority opinion), the "reasonable observer"-or even the exceptionally well-informed citizen steeped in the Court's legislative prayer jurisprudence-would be surprised to find exclusively sectarian invocations being delivered exclusively by the commissioners because, as noted, the Court has consistently spoken in terms of guest ministers and outside volunteers.

         In addition, as noted, no religion other than Christianity was ever represented at Board meetings. "When the state's representatives so emphatically evoke a single religion in nearly every prayer over a period of many years, that faith comes to be perceived as the one true faith, not merely of individual prayer-givers, but of government itself." Lund, 837 F.3d at 434 (panel dissent). Faced with this unchanging tableau, attendees must have come to the inescapable conclusion that the Board "favors one faith and one faith only." Id. at 435. This was the inference drawn by the plaintiffs, who described their sense of separation from their own government and the political process itself. See S.A. 1-10 (affidavits of the plaintiffs).

         It is not necessary, of course, for governments to go out of their way "to achieve religious balancing" in prayer content or to represent some minimum number of faiths. Town of Greece, 134 S.Ct. at 1824. But in considering whether government has aligned itself with a particular religion, a tapestry of many faiths lessens that risk whereas invoking only one exacerbates it. Here, the ...


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