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The letter and the spirit: Local governments wrestle with prayer

August 3, 2017

[Smoky Moutain News] – by

Public prayer in government has long been a contentious issue, but a recent court ruling has North Carolina municipalities scrambling to comply with both the letter and the spirit of the law while awaiting the challenges and changes that will inevitably come….

On July 14, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit ruled that the Rowan County Board of Commissioners’ tradition of lawmaker-led prayer was unconstitutional….

“I would say in general, no, there’s not a prohibition on calling upon any deity,” he said. “That in and of itself is not the problem — it’s the whole group of facts in any given case. It’s hard to come up with a bright line ruling in a case like this.”

Thus it appears that a commissioner invoking the name of Jesus during a prayer before a government meeting is sufficient separation of church and state, provided it’s not overly demeaning to non-Christians, and provided that it doesn’t happen regularly.

At least, that’s the letter of the law; the spirit of the Establishment Clause, however, is balanced by the First Amendment’s Free Exercise clause prohibiting laws that would prevent religious expression, even by elected officials.

That delicate balance will continue to serve as a source of contention between proponents of a more secular state and faith leaders, unless and until the Supreme Court rules specifically on the letter of the law — commissioner-led prayer — as well as the spirit of it.

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