By Corey Noland, Staff Member (Vol. 16)
“A moment of prayer or quiet reflection sets the mind to a higher purpose and thereby eases the task of governing.”
If I did not know any better, I would think this statement was made by a political candidate talking to his or her religious constituents, or perhaps by a pastor discussing his or her perspective on legislative prayer. But no, this quote is taken from a Supreme Court decision written by Justice Kennedy in Town of Greece in which he outlines the standard by which legislative prayer is scrutinized. This quote encapsulates the scope of the Supreme Court’s protection of legislative prayer. The most recent installment in the line of legislative prayer cases is one of significance in North Carolina. Rowan County’s longstanding tradition of opening commission meetings with prayer was challenged by the ACLU in 2013 as running afoul of the Establishment Clause.
My fellow First Amendment Law Review staff member wrote an excellent blog post in which she outlined how Lund was decided in the District Court and the Fourth Circuit. However, I disagree with her as to the validity of the distinctions used by the Fourth Circuit in Lund to move it outside of the shadow of Town of Greece. Specifically, I disagree with the notion that a prayer led by a commissioner is more coercive than legislative prayer led by a clergyman, and that legislator-led prayer should be treated differently under the precedent set by Town of Greece. My colleague believes that if the Supreme Court takes up Lund, the decision could be “closer than one would initially think;” however, I argue that the Supreme Court’s decision will not be close. The strong presumption in favor of the legislative prayer established in Town of Greece will swallow up the questionable distinctions used by the Fourth Circuit in Lund.