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A Federal Appeals Court Just Shot Down Government Prayer on Steroids in North Carolina

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An America in which religious pluralism and inclusiveness is scorned in favor of exclusionary governmental practices that distance the people from their representative government is not ours and never has been.

In Rowan County, North Carolina, the county board of commissioners was intent on taking government prayer to a whole new level. Every board meeting opened with a prayer. But it wasn’t just government prayer. It was government prayer on steroids.

The prayers were delivered by commissioners themselves. No one else was allowed to give the prayer. Over the years, the prayers referred to only one faith — Christianity — and were proselytizing. Multiple prayers, for example, described Christianity as “the one and only way to salvation.” In others, commissioners apologized for the community’s sins and failure to follow Jesus Christ, suggested that Christianity is a superior faith, and expressed a desire for meeting attendees to accept Christ.

Before every prayer began, a commissioner instructed audience members to stand and directed those assembled to join in the prayer. When some residents objected to the prayers, several commissioners loudly recommitted to the practice. One even announced he would go to jail before ending the prayers while another declared that he was being persecuted.

In 2013, the ACLU and ACLU of North Carolina filed a lawsuit challenging the practice on behalf of three Rowan County residents. The district court agreed that the prayers violated the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment and enjoined them. Earlier this year, the case was heard by the entire U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit. Last week, the court affirmed the lower court’s injunction and held that that the county’s prayers were, indeed, unconstitutional. The overwhelming majority of judges on the Fourth Circuit — 10 out of 15 — sided with our clients. 

As the court of appeals explained, the “great promise of the Establishment Clause is that religion will not operate as an instrument of division in our nation.”

The ruling is an important development in the law governing the separation of church and state. It recognizes that there are still limitations on invocations, often called “legislative prayer,” delivered at meetings of legislatures, town and county councils, and other legislative bodies, despite the Supreme Court’s ruling three years ago in Town of Greece v. Galloway. 

In Town of Greece, the Supreme Court upheld a town council’s practice of opening meetings with prayer led by a rotating cast of local clergy and others. Though the prayers there did invoke specific faiths — most often Christianity — the court recognized that the invocation opportunity was open to people of all faiths and had included non-Christian prayer-givers. However, the Supreme Court made clear in its Town of Greece decision that it was not creating an “anything goes” rule for legislative prayers. 

The Fourth Circuit gave voice to those limitations last week, finding that Rowan County breached the constitutionally permissible tradition of legislative prayer because it “linked itself persistently and relentlessly to a single faith” and “elevated one religion above all others.” This practice is a far cry from the invocations upheld in Town of Greece. 

First, “[i]nstead 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.” 

Second, “[h]aving structured the prayer opportunity so that Board members alone could give voice to their religious convictions, the commissioners unceasingly and exclusively invoked Christianity.” And these prayers routinely preached the Gospel to attendees, “proclaiming the spiritual and moral supremacy of Christianity, characterizing the political community as a Christian one, and urging adherents of other religions to embrace Christianity as the sole path to salvation.” 

Third, commissioners themselves directed those gathered to stand and pray. 

And, finally, they did all this in the context of an intimate, official governmental meeting, where attendees — who would thereafter petition the board on a variety of matters — felt pressured to participate to avoid incurring the board’s ire or the disapproval of their community. In fact, when one woman voiced concerns about this prayer practice, she was booed and jeered by her fellow citizens, sending a message to others that they’d better conform to the board’s will.

Given this totality of circumstances, the Fourth Circuit correctly concluded that “[i]f the prayer practice here were to pass constitutional muster, we would be hard-pressed to identify any constitutional limitations on legislative prayer.”

The decision was grounded in the religious-liberty principles that animated the First Amendment. As the court of appeals explained, the “great promise of the Establishment Clause is that religion will not operate as an instrument of division in our nation,” and “[i]t was in simple recognition of religious pluralism that the Founders adopted the Establishment Clause.” For that reason, the Constitution “does not permit a seat of government to wrap itself in a single faith.” 

Although the lead dissent, joined by five judges, “disparage[d] the majority for its belief in an ‘ecumenical utopia’ and its respect for the pluralistic nature of religious faith in our country,” the majority had another view: “If that be our sin, we shall gladly confess it. . . . In its eager acceptance of state-entwined religious orthodoxy, the lead dissent evokes an America that is not ours and never has been.”

This admonition bears repeating: An America in which religious pluralism and inclusiveness is scorned in favor of exclusionary governmental practices that distance the people from their representative government is not ours and never has been. And, we will keep fighting to make sure it never will be.

This article originally appeared on the ACLU’s blog and is reprinted here by permission.

To comment on this article and other NCRM content, visit our Facebook page.

Image by Steve Snodgrass via Flickr and a CC license

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COMMENTARY

First Lady Unveils White House Christmas ‘Gifts from the Heart’ Decorations – as Some Remember ‘Creepy’ Trump Holidays

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First Lady Dr. Jill Biden on Monday unveiled the White House’s 2021 Christmas decorations.

“Inspired by the acts of kindness and experiences that lifted our spirits this year, decorated rooms in the White House reflect the Gifts from the Heart that unite us all: faith, family, friendship, the arts, learning, nature, gratitude, service, community, peace, and unity,” Dr. Biden said in a social media post, which included photos.

The Hill’s Alex Gangitano posted some images from today’s tour:

In a monumental gesture of inclusiveness and spirit of bipartisanship the Bidens even included a nod to Donald Trump and Melania Trump, the former President and First Lady.

But some were quick to remember the disturbing Christmas decorating efforts of the former White House occupants:

Related:

Video of Trump Saying ‘Christmas Will Be Canceled’ if Biden Wins Goes Viral After President Refuses to Sign COVID Bill

‘Praise Be!’: Melania Mocked for ‘Handmaid’s Tale’ White House Christmas Trees Video

After ‘Give Me a Break’ Complaint Melania Mocked for ‘Pretending to Like Christmas’ as White House Tree Is Delivered

 

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RIGHT WING EXTREMISM

DeSantis Courts Anti-Vaxx Voters by Changing Unemployment Rules to Give Them Benefits if They Get Fired: Report

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Florida’s DeSantis administration is expanding the Republican governor’s anti-vaxx policies by altering state unemployment insurance rules to allow those fired for refusing the coronavirus vaccine to be eligible for benefits.

“Extending unemployment benefits to the unvaccinated is just the latest in a series of proposals aligning the GOP with people who won’t get a COVID shot,” Axios reports, noting that Iowa, Kansas, and Tennessee have also changed their rules to favor anti-vaxxers.

“Republicans see a prime opportunity to rally their base ahead of the midterms. No matter how successful their individual efforts, the campaign is a powerful messaging weapon,” Axios adds.

Up until now being fired for cause – for refusing an employer’s requirements, including being vaccinated – has made terminated employees ineligible for unemployment benefits.

“The general proposition is that it is lawful for an employer to mandate the vaccine and so if an employee doesn’t get it, it’s a choice,” labor attorney Domenique Camacho Moran told CBS News in October.

“It’s like if your employer said, ‘Come in at 9 o’clock and you said, ‘Thanks for sharing, I’ll come in at 11.’ If you engage in deliberate misconduct like that, you won’t be entitled to unemployment benefits which are designed to be provided to those who are separated through no fault of their own,” he added.

But DeSantis and his administration have been downplaying COVID and the coronavirus vaccine, promoting expensive COVID treatments over vaccines – treatments that financially benefit one of his top political donors.

Related:

DeSantis Hires New Surgeon General: A Hydroxychloroquine-Pushing Physician Who Appeared in ‘Demon Sperm’ Doc’s Video

Revealed: Ron DeSantis Has Been Taking COVID Advice From a California Psychiatrist Pushing Ivermectin

DeSantis Says ‘Deal With’ It as Coronavirus ‘Waves’ Rage Through Florida

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THIS IS WHAT FASCISM LOOKS LIKE

Trump Supporters Have New ‘Ambitious Plan’ to Have Loyalists Oversee Elections Across America: Report

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Donald Trump and his supporters are enacting an “ambitious plan” to place loyalists in key positions overseeing elections after his unsuccessful efforts to overturn the results of the 2020 presidential election, which was won by Joe Biden.

“In Michigan, local GOP leaders have sought to reshape election canvassing boards by appointing members who expressed sympathy for former president Donald Trump’s false claims that the 2020 vote was rigged. In two Pennsylvania communities, candidates who embraced election fraud allegations won races this month to become local voting judges and inspectors,” The Washington Post reported Monday. “And in Colorado, 2020 doubters are urging their followers on conservative social media platforms to apply for jobs in election offices.”

The report comes as Trump continues to push his “Big Lie” of election fraud, releasing a Sunday statement falsely claiming the “2020 Election was rigged and stolen.”

“Citing the need to make elections more secure, Trump allies are also seeking to replace officials across the nation, including volunteer poll watchers, paid precinct judges, elected county clerks and state attorneys general, according to state and local officials, as well as rally speeches, social media posts and campaign appearances by those seeking the positions,” the newspaper reported. “If they succeed, Trump and his allies could pull down some of the guardrails that prevented him from overturning Biden’s win by creating openings to challenge the results next time, election officials and watchdog groups say.”

READ: Trump has a plan to make it easier to ‘subvert the will of the voters’ in 2024: CNN

There are QAnon-linked candidates running for secretary of state to oversee elections, including Rachel Hamm in California, Jim Marchant in Nevada, Kristina Karamo in Michigan, Mark Finchem in Arizona, and Rep. Jody Hice (R-GA) in Georgia.

Colorado Secretary of State Jena Griswold (D) warned how the focus has shifted from overturning the last election to overturning future elections.

“The attacks right now are no longer about 2020,” Griswold explained. “They’re about 2022 and 2024. It’s about chipping away at confidence and chipping away at the reality of safe and secure elections. And the next time there’s a close election, it will be easier to achieve their goals. That’s what this is all about.”

Read the full report.

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