WASHINGTON (AP) - The Supreme Court is leaving in place a decision that barred a North Carolina county from opening its meetings with Christian prayers.

The Supreme Court declined Thursday to take a case involving the Rowan County Board of Commissioners. The board was sued in 2013 over its practice of opening meetings with a prayer led by a commissioner.

RELATED: Appeals court says Rowan County board's prayer practice is unconstitutional

The full U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit in Richmond ruled against the county in 2017. It said the commissioners' practice of leading the prayers themselves and inviting the audience to join, always in the Christian faith, violated the First Amendment by establishing Christianity as a preferred religion. The Supreme Court's decision not to take the case leaves that decision in place. Last September, the commissioners voted unanimously to appeal their case to the Supreme Court.

Commissioners argued the appeal was not a fight for Christian prayer per se, but rather for freedom of speech to pray however they choose.

"Making someone feel uncomfortable is not coercion," said vice chair Jim Greene.

RELATED: Rowan County commissioners

vote

unanimously to appeal prayer case to Supreme Court

Justice Clarence Thomas said he'd have taken the case.

The ACLU of North Carolina released the following statement after the decision:

"The U.S. Supreme Court announced today it will not review a ruling that found the county commissioners of Rowan County, North Carolina, violated the Constitution by coercing members of the public to join in prayers that overwhelmingly advanced beliefs specific to one religion. The decision means that a lower court ruling striking down the practice will stand, with Rowan County having exhausted all possible appeals."

“This is an important victory for the rights of all people to be free from religious coercion by government officials,” said Chris Brook, legal director for the ACLU of North Carolina, who argued the case at the district and circuit court. “People who attend public meetings should not have to fear that government officials may force them to participate in a prayer—or discriminate against them if they don’t.”

“This case has always been about making Rowan County more welcoming to people of all beliefs, and we are so glad that the Supreme Court has let this ruling stand,” said Nan Lund, the lead plaintiff in the case, Lund et al. v. Rowan County. “Everyone should be able to attend public meetings and raise concerns with government officials without having to violate or be judged by their religious beliefs.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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