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RICHMOND, VA – The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit announced yesterday that the full court would reconsider a September 2-1 panel decision that allowed the commissioners of Rowan County, North Carolina, to continue their practice of opening meetings with prayers that coerced public participation and overwhelmingly advanced beliefs specific to one religion.

With the grant of en banc review, that panel decision will be vacated, and all 15 judges for the Fourth Circuit will now review a lower court decision that found the commissioners’ practice unconstitutional.

“We’re very pleased that the full Fourth Circuit has agreed to review this practice that is clearly out of step with the First Amendment’s protection of religious liberty,” said Chris Brook, Legal Director of the American Civil Liberties Union of North Carolina, which represents three Rowan County residents in a challenge to the commissioners’ policy. “When people attend meetings of their local government, they should not have to worry about being coerced to participate in a sectarian prayer that goes against their beliefs and being discriminated against by local officials when they don’t.”

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RICHMOND, VA – In a divided 2-1 ruling, a three-judge panel from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit today reversed a lower court decision that found the commissioners of Rowan County, North Carolina, violated the Constitution when they coerced public participation in prayers that overwhelmingly advanced beliefs specific to one religion.

The American Civil Liberties Union, which represents three Rowan County residents in a challenge to the commissioners’ prayer policy, says it will ask the Fourth Circuit to review the ruling en banc, in which the case would be heard by all 15 judges on the Fourth Circuit. In a dissenting opinion today, Judge J. Harvie Wilkinson wrote that “the message actually delivered in this case was not one of welcome but of exclusion” and that “it is the combination of the role of the commissioners, their instructions to the audience, their invocation of a single faith, and the local governmental setting that threatens to blur the line between church and state to a degree unimaginable in [the Supreme Court’s decision in] Town of Greece.”

“Today’s ruling is out of step with the First Amendment’s protection of religious liberty for all, and we will ask the full appellate court to review this decision,” said Chris Brook, Legal Director for the ACLU of North Carolina. “Rowan County residents should be able to attend local government meetings without being coerced to participate in a sectarian prayer or worry that the commissioners may discriminate against them if they do not. As Judge Wilkinson wrote in his dissent today, the facts in this case are a ‘conceptual world apart’ from those the U.S. Supreme Court upheld in Greece, New York, and that is why we will seek en banc review.”

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RALEIGH – A new online video campaign portrays real North Carolinians in everyday situations – “mundane moments” – that could be threatened by state laws that enable discrimination.

The “Mundane Moment” campaign launched this week with videos portraying lesbian parents, a Muslim couple, and a transgender woman – all real North Carolinians – in various family situations. The videos aim to highlight a North Carolina law that allows government officials to deny marriage services to couples if they cite a religious objection, as well as the absence of any North Carolina laws protecting transgender people from various forms of discrimination. 

The three videos and more information about these issues are available at MundaneMoment.org.

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RICHMOND, VA – The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit will hold oral arguments on January 27 in the appeal of a federal court ruling that found the county commissioners of Rowan County, North Carolina, violated the Constitution when they coerced public participation in prayers that overwhelmingly advanced beliefs specific to one religion.

“Residents should be able to attend and participate in local government meetings without being subjected to religious coercion or the fear that government officials may discriminate against them because they hold different beliefs,” said Chris Brook, Legal Director for the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of North Carolina Legal Foundation. “We look forward to presenting our case to the Fourth Circuit in order to ensure that local government meetings in Rowan County are welcoming to all community members.”

The ACLU-NC Legal Foundation and national ACLU Program on Freedom of Religion and Belief filed a lawsuit challenging the commissioners’ coercive prayer practice in March 2013 on behalf of Rowan County residents Nan Lund, Robert Voelker, and Liesa Montag-Siegel. Between 2007 and 2013, more than 97 percent of the prayers delivered by commissioners before public meetings were specific to one religion, Christianity. In May 2015, a federal district court ruled the practice unconstitutional and ordered the commissioners to cease opening their meetings with prayers that coerced public participation and had the effect of discriminating against religious minorities in the community.

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