Nearly 400 years ago, a small band of men and women set out across the Atlantic Ocean to create a place where they could freely express their faith without fear of government intervention or persecution.
Their ideals eventually formed the basis of our Republic. Their steadfast desire for religious freedom was embedded into the First Amendment of our Constitution, and still serves as a bedrock of our society today.
In West Virginia, respect for religious conviction runs deep. That is why our Office has weighed in over the past few years in court cases dealing with religious freedom, specifically the right to conduct prayers in public.
In 2013, my Office joined with officials from 22 other states in a U.S. Supreme Court case that eventually upheld voluntary prayers at public meetings. Earlier this month, my Office weighed in on a similar case from North Carolina that involves the right of public officials to lead voluntary prayers at the start of their meetings.
You might ask, “Why is the West Virginia Attorney General weighing in on a case from North Carolina?” Well, the North Carolina case is currently pending before the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals. West Virginia is one of the states covered by the Fourth Circuit, so whatever decision that panel hands down will be binding in our state.
Beyond determining the right of public officials to lead a voluntary prayer before their meetings, this case could have a significant effect on our mostly rural state.
You see, the previous U.S. Supreme Court decision last year specifically held that paid chaplains or volunteer rotating members of the clergy could open a public meeting with a prayer, so long as that prayer held to the long-standing Supreme Court standard of not proselytizing or advancing or disparaging any one particular religion, and so long as it did not coerce participation by audience members.
In this case from North Carolina, the question is whether a legislator or elected member of a public body can offer to lead that prayer, in the absence of a chaplain or member of the clergy.
This is important in West Virginia, where many rural cities and counties cannot afford to hire chaplains or regularly recruit clergy members to lead prayers at their meetings. It would burden these governing bodies if they would have to spend efforts and resources securing these religious leaders for each meeting.
With the help of county commission and municipal staff in West Virginia and other states, the 13-state coalition that we led to weigh in on the North Carolina case found that it is not uncommon in many areas throughout the Fourth Circuit for lawmakers to open their meetings with a voluntary prayer. Even beyond the local and county level, both houses of our state Legislature also sometime use lawmaker-led prayer to open their daily floor sessions.
We believe this is a practice that should be allowed to continue to both allow for the free and voluntary expression of faith, and do so in a way that does not unnecessarily burden smaller local governing bodies.
This is a long-standing tradition and revered practice in our state. We hope the courts will allow it to continue.