A divided federal appeals court says county commissioners in North Carolina can open their meetings with Christian prayers.

A three-judge panel of the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals declared the Rowan County commissioner's prayer practice constitutional on Monday. The appeals court decision reverses a lower court ruling that said the prayers violated the Constitution's ban on mixing church and state.

The American Civil Liberties Union sued the commission in 2013 on behalf of three people who said the practice of starting meetings with prayers that almost always referred to Christianity was coercive and discriminatory.

The 4th Circuit said the board's prayer practice "falls within our recognized tradition" and doesn't force non-Christians to participate. Judge J. Harvie Wilkinson dissented, saying the message in the opening prayers is one of exclusion.