Sunday, February 7, 2016

Religious Coercion as Unconstitutional Establishment

United States federal courts have ruled extensively on the issue of prayer in the public sphere. Most recently, a federal appeals court is set rule on the constitutionality of county commissioners in North Carolina delivering Christian prayers at their meetings. The American Civil Liberties Union filed the initial lawsuit on behalf of three residents that claim that the Rowan County Commission conducted almost exclusively Christian prayers at the beginning of their meetings. Prayers would typically include phrases such as "in the name of Jesus" or "in the knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ." The plaintiffs, who are not Christian, argued that the prayers made them feel that the commission favored a certain religion, and that they felt pressure to conform. The ACLU brought up the issue to the commission in 2012, when they wrote a letter saying that the practices were unconstitutional. In 2013, a federal court issued a preliminary injunction which required the commission to stop the prayer at meetings. Nearly a year after the courts decision, the judge made the ruling permanent, halting all the religious practices indefinitely. 

Rowan County's fight back against the decision focuses on the boards policy and the ability of citizens to refuse to participate. The board policy does not mention any mandated practice of religion, and the commissioners stated "that they were following a long-standing tradition and took turns delivering the prayer." Citizens were able to leave the room or arrive after the prayer without affecting their ability to participate in meetings. This case bears resemblance to a case decided in 2014, where the Greece, NY Town Board used predominantly Christian invocations at its meetings. The court ruled in favor of the Town Board. However, "there is a key difference between the two cases: Rowan County commissioners delivered the prayers themselves, while the Town Board in Greece, New York, invited local clergy or laypeople to do so, according to a previous ruling by a federal judge in North Carolina ." 

U.S. District Judge James Beaty Jr. believes that the distinction between the people delivering the message is crucial to understanding the case. Since the commissioners—in Rowan—were the sole writers and deliverers of the prayer, Judge Beaty believes that the practice is "unconstitutionally coercive." Using that language as the distinction between those two cases plays an important role in deciding if the Rowan County commissioners prayer was an unconstitutional establishment of religion. Essentially, Judge Beaty makes the case that the religious practice must be coercive in order to be considered unconstitutional establishment. The plaintiffs argue that the commencement to their meetings is not coercive, as "people can leave the room if they don't want to hear the prayer." 

The two elements to the case—who delivered the prayer, and if it was coercive—make it tough to decide from a legal standpoint, as the law is ambiguous. I believe that having the commissioners deliver the prayer is important to the case, but not a deciding factor. Public officials including religious aspects in ceremonies and proceedings is fairly common. The supreme court clearly displays the ten commandments at the entrance to the chambers; "In God we trust" is displayed on national currency; and the pledge of allegiance states that we are a nation "under God." These public displays of religion are allowed for the same reason that I believe the commissioners can deliver public prayer—they are not coercive in nature. The Rowan County Commission doesn't require any members to recite the prayer, or even be in the room when the prayers are said. Regardless of what religion the commissioners take from, their prayer does not force any views on constituents, so it shouldn't constitute establishment. 


Many states are watching this ruling closely, because the outcome will have an effect in many districts. This tension surrounding this case has already prompted several local commissions to amend their practices and get rid of religious proceedings. The implications of this case extend beyond the local sphere, as the decision could set precedence for the action of many public entities. Though the case differs from the 2014 decision in Greece, NY, I believe the underlying principle of establishment still remains. Religious practice on behalf of the public must be coercive in order to unconstitutionally establish religion, and I don't believe that Rowan County's non-mandated prayer is coercive.

5 comments:

Lauren C. said...

I agree with you that this practice is not an establishment of religion and should not be viewed as unconstitutional. The public officials who are reciting the religiously affiliated phrases are in no way forcing the other members in the meetings to believe them. They even give no penalty to members if they come to the meeting after the opening phrases are recited. This shows that the officials are viewing these statements as a mere tradition of their meetings and respect the religious beliefs of the other members so much so that they are encouraged to leave the room or not participate if they feel uncomfortable. Although this could be seen as somewhat of a "slippery slope", this particular situation shows no evidence of an establishment of religion. There are many long held traditions in this country that are rooted in secular beliefs. The interpretation of these traditions is what has shifted over the years. It is important to acknowledge the views that many different religious groups have on the phrases being recited at the commissioners' meetings, but they are in no way obligated to listen or take part in the recitation of these phrases. They are a tradition of the meetings and viewed as so. This should not be seen as an unconstitutional act.

Houtan Bozorghadad said...

I agree that the traditions the Rowan County Commission performs are constitutional and should not disallowed by the court. The key points are that the Commission is in no way forcing members to follow religious practices or even be present as they occur, since there is no punishment for choosing not to participate or attend. A counterargument that can be raised is that there isn't a religious clergyman performing the religious tradition, which was the key difference for the Town Board in Greece, New York, but the fact that a clergyman or a non-clergyman performing the tradition does not change that the tradition is religious so it should not be a deciding factor.

Sara G. said...

I have to disagree with you. I think that allowing a public official to deliver a prayer is an act that establishes religion. The public official, while on the job, is a representative of the government, therefore what they say represents the government as well. This includes their religiously oriented language. Having religious testaments professed as part of a government meeting is absolutely an establishment of religion. I think it also makes no difference whether people have to take part or not. Public officials delivering a non-mandatory prayer at a meeting is no different than having a state religion but not requiring people to attend church. Neither are coercive since participation isn't mandatory, yet we can all agree that the later is unconstitutional, so why isn't the former? You make the point that this public prayer isn't much different from the ten commandments in the supreme court, "In God We Trust" on money, and "under god" in the pledge of allegiance. I do agree here, it isn't different at all. What I disagree with is your argument for why these things should be legal. You say that because they aren't coercive they should be allowed. I disagree, you do have to use money, and if you are ordered to appear at the supreme court you do have to go. This forces you to recognize the messages. I also believe that these things are unconstitutional because they are an establishment of religion. The government issued money and the supreme court building should have no religious messages, as government-supported things are supposed to be religiously neutral. They are also coercive in that when seeing these messages on government-supported things, it can make people of other faiths feel separated from the majority, unrecognized, or cast aside by the government who seems to clearly favor one religion over the rest. This could make these people of religious minorities feel pointed out or at a disadvantage, especially in schools where children who do not agree with the phrase "under god" are forced to stand out be staying silent in order to maintain their own religious integrity and the supreme court example where people may feel pressured to hide their beliefs to avoid any negative outcomes that could occur by not following the religious messages carved in stone above them.

Samantha Woolford said...

This practice is solely a tradition, not an act or coercion or an establishment of religion. They were not forcing anyone to participate in the prayers and people could show up after the prayers were completed without any penalties. There are some religious foundations that our government was built on, and it has been this way for many years, becoming a tradition. Should we then take off "In God We Trust" on our currency, take down the Ten Commandments in the Supreme Court, stop saying "under God" in the Pledge of Allegiance? These are no different, and is just the way things have been.

Maddie G said...

In this case I would have to agree that the fact that the state officials running the meeting are the ones leading the prayer is extremely important. Even though those who object have the option of leaving the room or not participating, state officials are essentially choosing a religion and sanctioning its practice by opening each meeting with a prayer, even if that practice is not inherently coercive. In my view, this is a pretty simple violation of the establishment clause, which clearly favors those who ascribe to the majority religion of the town.