Bloomberg View columnist Noah Feldman, who is also a professor of constitutional and international law at Harvard University, recently wrote a column in which he criticized a ruling by a federal appeals court. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit reversed a federal district court’s decision that public prayers by members of the Rowan County, North Carolina board of commissioners were unconstitutional.
In reversing the decision, the appeals court cited the controlling Supreme Court precedent from the 2014 case of Town of Greece v. Galloway, in which it held that sectarian prayers by legislative bodies are permissible. But Feldman agrees with Judge J. Harvie Wilkinson’s dissenting opinion that the board was unconstitutionally coercing residents attending its meetings into participating in prayer. Wilkinson even went as far as to say the “seat of government” in this case was made to look like “a house of worship.”
But are the citizens of Rowan County really being coerced into participating in religious practices such as prayer? Let’s look at the facts. Each meeting begins with a member of the board of commissioners inviting those in attendance to stand for the invocation and the Pledge of Allegiance. He will then give the invocation in the form of a Christian prayer (all five members are Christian, and take turns giving the invocation).
The following is an example of the kind of prayer that is typically offered: “Let us pray. Holy Spirit, open our hearts to Christ’s teachings, and enable us to spread his message amongst the people we know and love through the applying of the sacred words in our everyday lives. In Jesus’ name I pray. Amen.”
Feldman thinks such prayers amount to proselytizing. Maybe, but as long as citizens are only “invited” to participate, it is difficult to find any coercion in this case. Anyone who wants to attend the board meeting and doesn’t want to participate in the prayer can simply arrive a few minutes late or step outside until the praying is over. Problem resolved. Like the majority on that federal appeals court, I see no constitutional issue here.