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Noah Feldman

When a County Board's Prayer Goes Too Far

An appeals court got this case wrong: Local leaders can't proselytize.
The law isn't black or white.

The law isn't black or white.

Photographer: Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images

Plenty of local governments open their meetings with a quick, generic prayer from a member of the clergy. But is it different when the lawmakers themselves say “Let us pray” and then supplicate God to open everyone’s heart to the message of Jesus Christ? Does that violate the Constitution?

In a significant defeat for religious liberty, a federal appeals court has upheld a continuous practice of sectarian, public prayer by the members of a North Carolina board of county commissioners. The dissenting judge, the distinguished conservative J. Harvie Wilkinson, said the “seat of government” in the case was made to resemble “a house of worship.” The court’s majority said it was just following Supreme Court precedent.