CHARLESTON – West Virginia Attorney General Patrick Morrisey's office is leading a 13-state coalition to urge a federal appeals court to uphold public officials’ right to pray at public meetings.
The coalition last week filed an amicus curiae, or friend of the court, brief in the case of Lund v. Rowan County. The case is currently before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit, which includes West Virginia in its jurisdiction.
The states are asking the Appeals Court to overturn a North Carolina district court ruling which declared that a North Carolina county’s practice of opening its legislative sessions with prayer violated the First Amendment.
“West Virginia and other states filed this brief because lawmakers have opened legislative sessions with prayer since the founding of our Republic,” Morrisey said in a statement. “West Virginia has a proud tradition of beginning public meetings with a time for prayer, including prayers in which lawmakers participate.
"This practice should be permitted to continue and the free expression of faith should not be quashed.”
In 1983, the Supreme Court ruled legislative prayer to be constitutional and not in violation of the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause as long as the prayer didn’t proselytize, advance or disparage any one religion. In 2014, the Supreme Court held that officials can participate in legislative prayer before government meetings in cities and counties as well as in state legislatures and Congress.
However, the district court in North Carolina held that lawmakers may not themselves lead prayers before government meetings, and instead must have a member of the public lead any prayers that are offered.
The states argue that a Fourth Circuit decision upholding the lower court ruling would eliminate an important and widely used method of prayer at public meetings, and would harm local governments that cannot afford to hire a full-time chaplain or recruit volunteer clergy.
The brief also includes data showing that lawmaker-led prayer is a common practice in numerous state, county and municipal governing bodies in West Virginia, Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina and South Carolina.
A decision in this case is expected sometime next year.
Attorneys General from Alabama, Arizona, Arkansas, Florida, Indiana, Michigan, Nebraska, Nevada, Ohio, Oklahoma, South Carolina, and Texas joined West Virginia in the amicus brief.
A copy of the brief can be read at http://bit.ly/1UtUXDo