Associated Press

RICHMOND, Va. — Elected officials in North Carolina violated the Constitution by opening meetings with Christian prayers and inviting audience members to join, a federal appeals court ruled Friday in a closely watched case that could end up in the Supreme Court.

The 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a lower court ruling that found the Rowan County Board of Commissioners’ prayer practice to be “unconstitutionally coercive.”

The Supreme Court already has ruled that it’s appropriate for local clergy to deliver predominantly Christian prayers at town meetings in New York. The question in the Rowan County case was whether it makes a difference that the prayers were given by the commissioners themselves and whether their invitation for the audience to join them in prayer was coercive.

The 4th Circuit, located in Richmond, Virginia, stressed that it’s not inherently unconstitutional for lawmakers to lead prayers. But the fact that the Rowan County commissioners were the exclusive prayer givers combined with them consistently invoking one faith and inviting audience members to participate sent the message that they preferred Christianity above other religions, the court said.

“The principle at stake here may be a profound one, but it is also simple. The Establishment Clause does not permit a seat of government to wrap itself in a single faith,” Judge J. Harvie Wilkinson III wrote in the majority opinion that was joined by nine other judges.

Dissenting judges said the majority opinion can’t be reconciled with Supreme Court rulings upholding government prayer. Judge Paul Niemeyer said the majority’s decision “actively undermines the appropriate role of prayer in American civil life.”

The American Civil Liberties Union filed the lawsuit on behalf of non-Christians who said the prayers made them feel excluded.