A North Carolina county is shelling out $285,000 to the American Civil Liberties Union to settle a five-year-old lawsuit over its prayer practices.
Rowan County commissioners approved the court-ordered legal fee Monday after a failed challenge to a 2013 lawsuit from the ACLU, which represented three residents of the county – Nan Lund, Liesa Montag-Siegel, and Robert Voelker – who took issue with the county’s opening Christian prayers from 2007 to 2013.
The county opened its meetings with a prayer and asked its residents to stand and join in. The ACLU called that practice "coercive."
After the county agreed to pay the fee, the county chairman called the ACLU “bullies” for targeting the small community’s prayer practices.
“We are obviously very unhappy with this and I think a few of us are, probably, physically sick to our stomach that we have to do this," Chairman Greg Edds told the Salisbury Post. "But this is the risk that we took.”
The county decided to continue challenging the lawsuit until it had exhausted all legal avenues.
Because the Supreme Court declined to take the case last year in June, the ruling from the lower court stood. A panel of 15 judges ruled 10-5 that the opening prayers at Rowan County meetings were “unconstitutional” because they weren’t sectarian.
Even so, the commissioners don’t regret the fight.
“It’s not a religious thing for me, it was more about freedom of speech. I just don’t think if you’re going to support and speak for the public that you should be told what you can and cannot say," Commissioner Craig Pierce told WBTV. "$285,000, there are 140,000 citizens in Rowan County, that’s $2 per citizen to figure this out and that’s a whole lot cheaper than what we spent on a lot of the things that didn’t pan out.”
The ACLU celebrated the outcome, reiterating what the judge wrote in the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals in 2017.
“Free religious exercise can only remain if not influenced and directed by the hand of the state,” the ACLU said.
The Supreme Court last year also declined to review a decision by the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals, which ruled opening prayers from commissioners in Jackson County, Michigan, as constitutional.