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W.Va. officials debate opening prayer court case

ELKINS, W.Va. — A recent North Carolina District Court ruling is bringing renewed attention to having volunteer prayers before the opening of public meetings, a practice common in North Central West Virginia.

On Saturday, West Virginia Attorney General Patrick Morrisey announced that he is leading a 13-state coalition to urge the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit to reverse the lower court’s decision.

The case stems from Lund v. Rowan County, North Carolina, where the District Court ruled that the county’s practice of opening its meetings with a prayer violated the First Ammendment.

Last week, Morrisey filed an amicus curiae, or friends of the court brief, asking for the ruling to be overturned.

“West Virginia and other states filed this brief because lawmakers have opened legislative sessions with prayer since the founding of our Republic,” Morrisey said. “West Virginia has a proud tradition of beginning public meetings with a time for prayer, including prayers in which lawmakers participate. This practice should be permitted to continue and the free expression of faith should not be quashed.”

The Randolph County Board of Education, Randolph County Commission and Elkins City Council all have volunteer prayers prior to the opening of meetings, as does the Upshur County Board of Education, Upshur County Commission and Buckhannon City Council.

Local officials have all reacted in support of the voluntary gesture.

“I don’t think we should change anything,” said Elkins City Councilman Robert Woolwine, First Ward. “I think we should keep doing what we’re doing. As a Christian, I believe in God. I don’t force my views on anybody else.

“If we have a prayer here, and if you don’t want to bow your head in respect for him, that’s fine,” Woolwine added. “But also, at the same time, I always ask for guidance from him so we make our decisions, hopefully, the right way that he’ll approve of. I wouldn’t want to change anything, personally.”

Councilman Mitch Marstiller, Second Ward, echoes Woolwine’s sentiment, adding, “One of the things I think about limiting prayers in public meetings is you’re kind of violating the Establishment Clause in the Constitution. The First Amendment basically says that you can’t, you’re not suppose to, make any law not allowing for prayer in public meetings, which is very important, too, because of freedom of speech and freedom of religion.

“If people feel they need to pray before a meeting, or if they want to express their religious freedom, that’s very important to do,” Marstiller added. “I don’t think that in our situation, prayer before a public meeting, before it’s actually gaveled down, has any impact on the duties we discharge here at council.”

In 1983, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled legislative prayer to be constitutional and not in violation of the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause as long as the prayer didn’t proselytize, advance or disparage any one religion.

In 2014, the Supreme Court held that officials can participate in legislative prayer before government meetings in cities and counties as well as in state legislatures and Congress.

However, the district court in North Carolina held that lawmakers may not themselves lead prayers before government meetings, and instead must have a member of the public lead any prayers that are offered.

Randolph County Commission President Mike Taylor, who often leads the prayer before meetings, also is in support of the practice.

“We used to open the meeting with a moment of silent meditation, but when the Supreme Court came out with their last decision, we all felt comfortable with opening the meeting with a prayer,” Taylor said. “We voted on it and all voted in the affirmative. We had been asked by members of the community to do so, so we felt it was appropriate.”

“We certainly don’t want to infringe on anybody’s beliefs, but we are one nation under God,” Taylor added.

Morrisey expects a decision on the matter, “sometime next year.”

Attorneys general from Alabama, Arizona, Arkansas, Florida, Indiana, Michigan, Nebraska, Nevada, Ohio, Oklahoma, South Carolina and Texas joined West Virginia in the amicus brief.

Lynn Setler contributed to this report.

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