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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.

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Image by Steve Snodgrass via Flickr and a CC license

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COMMENTARY

Fox News Host’s Inaccurate Reporting Leads to False Right-Wing Speculation Breyer Was Forced Out

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Barely minutes before 12:00 noon on Wednesday NBC News’ Pete Williams broke the news that Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer was going to announce he is retiring, at the end of the term.

Hours later Fox News host Shannon Bream breathlessly tweeted, “Multiple sources tell me Justice Breyer was not planning to announce his retirement today. They describe him as ‘upset’ with how this has played out. We still await any official notice from his office and/or the #SCOTUS public information office.”

That was 2:41 PM.

Her tweet was inaccurate – based on her own reporting, about a half-hour later.

At 3:14 PM Bream “clarified” her reporting, making clear that Justice Breyer “firmly decided” to retire on his own, and was merely “surprised” that a top-notch veteran Supreme Court reporter broke the news:

Her first tweet has received thousands of retweets and likes and led to false speculation among many right-wingers (adding to the already false claims from the far right) that President Joe Biden forced Justice Breyer out the door – something impossible (unless you do over a billion dollars in business with a bank where the son of a Supreme Court Justice works.)

Too late, the damage is done. Ordinarily many reporters will delete tweets that are inaccurate or wrong, then post the reason why, and a correction. Bream did not.

Related: Fox News Host Asks How We Can Tell ‘Bad Guys’ If We Can’t See ‘Tone Of Their Skin’?

Over at the right-wing National Review, senior writer Charles C. W. Cooke posted an article titled: “Did the Democratic Party Preempt Justice Breyer’s Announcement to Force His Hand?”

Its only content: Bream’s inaccurate tweet and the words, “It certainly seems possible.”

Here are more results of Bream’s inaccurate reporting:

Chief political correspondent, Washington Examiner and Fox News contributor Byron York:

Another Washington Times columnist and a SiriusXMPatriot personality:

Former senior advisor to the National Republican Senatorial Committee (NRSC):

Blogger at right wing website Hot Air:

Radio talk show host:

 

 

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OUCH

Silenced by Psaki: Reporter Pushing Right Wing Talking Points Can’t Answer Press Secretary’s Basic Questions About Them

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A reporter was silent after pushing right-wing talking points during the White House’s daily press briefing and being asked to explain her question. The Q&A was so disturbing one well-known political scientist weighed in on social media to declare the White House press corps an “embarrassment.”

“Just a quick question on inflation,” the unnamed reporter began as she asked her question on the administration’s plan to strengthen the social safety net and grow jobs. “Many believe that government spending is a big factor in the current inflation levels. Can you speak to concerns that spending plans that come out of Build Back Better aren’t paid for, and so could mean higher deficits and more inflation in the future.”

Psaki, a little stunned, confirmed she heard correctly: “Aren’t paid for? Build Back Better is paid for.”

The reporter was silent. As time moved on, so did Psaki.

“Entirely,” she added, definitively.

“Okay,” replied the reporter, apparently out of facts and with little understanding of what she was asking. “Can you speak to the concerns that are coming in that it’s not, actually?”

“Who are the concerns from though?” Psaki asked.

Silence again.

“Who’s saying it’s not paid for?” Psaki pressed.

More silence.

“Because there have been a range of economists saying it’s entirely paid for, and that has been a priority for the President. It has also been concluded by a number of Nobel laureates and experts from a range of economic experts on the outside that it will not contribute to inflation. So those are the global experts that we would point to, but there may be others suggesting something else, but I don’t know who those people are,” she said, allowing the reporter to offer a different response, to possibly retain her dignity.

“So if those bills do pass it will not raise taxes?” the reporter asked, which is an entirely different question.

“Well, something being entirely paid for means that part of that is the highest income Americans highest that companies would be asked to pay a little bit more. That has been part of the proposal and part of reforming the tax system to make it more fair,” Psaki explained.

“So they’re also not expected to contribute to future inflation, then?”

“The Build Back Better Bill? Again, it’s fully paid for, we would point to Nobel laureates and a range of global economists who have conveyed that it would not contribute to inflationary pressures.”

Watch:

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RIGHT WING EXTREMISM

Influential Far Right Conservatives Ballistic Over Breyer Retirement: ‘They Must Be Stopped’

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As soon as the news broke that Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer will retire at the end of the current session, right-wing activists began declaring that Breyer had been “bullied” into stepping down and therefore Republicans must do everything they can to block whomever President Joe Biden nominates to fill that seat.

Carrie Severino of the Judicial Crisis Network and Tom Fitton of Judicial Watch both asserted that Breyer had been forced out of his seat on the court.

Penny Nance of Concerned Women for America declared that Biden must use the vacancy to unify the nation by appointing to the court a “constitutionalist” (which is conservative code for “right-wing ideologue”).

Proclaiming that the Senate is the “our last line of defense against radical leftist SCOTUS justices,” Ohio Republican Senate candidate Josh Mandel used the opportunity to promote his own campaign.

Rep. Lauren Boebert proclaimed that Biden should take a hint from Breyer and “follow him out the door.”

Right-wing activist Brigitte Gabriel openly asserted that it doesn’t even matter whom Biden nominates, “they must be stopped.”

Right-wing commentator Matt Walsh demanded that the position remain vacant until following the midterm elections in November, insisting that “it would be an assault on our democracy” to confirm any nominee before then.

Taking things a step further, radical Arizona state Sen. Wendy Rogers called on the U.S. Senate to “filibuster, stall, delay and hold Biden’s Supreme Court pick until 2024.”

This article was originally published by Right Wing Watch and is republished here by permission.

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