US judge: Rowan County commissioners must stop opening meetings with their Christian prayers

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WINSTON-SALEM, North Carolina — A federal judge ruled Monday that Rowan County commissioners must stop opening their meetings with prayers that almost always referred to Christianity.

U.S. District Judge James Beaty Jr. ruled that the way the commissioners opened meetings with prayers violated the U.S. Constitution's prohibition against mixing church and state. Rowan County commissioners themselves delivered prayers before their meetings.

Commissioners stood, almost always bowed their heads and asked audience members to also stand and join them in prayers that normally included references to Jesus, the Savior, and other tenets of the Christian faith, the judge said.

The American Civil Liberates Union sued the commission in 2013 on behalf of three people who complained commissioners were alienating members of the community by opening their meeting with a prayer for a specific religion.

"When Plaintiffs wish to advocate for local issues in front of the Board, they should not be faced with the choice between staying seated and unobservant, or acquiescing to the prayer practice of the Board," Beaty wrote in his decision.

The judge ruled that practice distinguished the case from a U.S. Supreme Court decision last year upholding prayers before public meetings as long as officials make a good-faith effort at inclusion. Government officials can't participate in actions that coerce citizens to engage in religious conduct, Beaty wrote.

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