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Should government meetings include prayer? Federal court hears N.C. case.

The hearing marks the first time a federal appeals court will consider how local councils conduct prayers since the US Supreme Court in 2014 upheld the practice of an upstate New York town’s officials of invoking Christian references during thier meetings.

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Rowan County Clerk Kim Davis (r.) talks with David Moore following her office's refusal to issue marriage licenses at the Rowan County Courthouse in Morehead, Ky. Issues relating to religious liberties have become increasingly fraught since the US Supreme Court June ruling legalizing same-sex marriage. On Wednesday, a federal judge will hear arguments from county commissioners hoping that the court will overturn a previous ruling that deemed the commission's invocation of prayer during council meetings as a violation of the separation of church and state.

Timothy D. Easley/AP/File

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A federal appeals court will examine whether county commissioners in in Richmond, N.C., violated the Constitution by conducting Christian prayers, and inviting the congregation to join in, during their council meetings.

The 4th Circuit Court of Appeals, composed of a panel of three judges, is expected to hear Rowan County's bid to overturn a federal judge's ruling that local officials violated the first amendment to the US Constitution – the separation between church and state – on Wednesday.

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The hearing will mark the first time a federal appeals court will consider how local councils conduct prayers since the US Supreme Court in 2014 upheld the right of an upstate New York town’s officials to invoking Christian references during their meetings. The US Supreme Court said that the officials did not violate the constitution, and ruled that the town could continue to open its town meetings with a prayer, citing an American tradition of similar religious invocations.

The case comes at a time when the issue of religious liberties in the United States has become particularly fraught, particularly after the Supreme Court ruled that laws prohibiting same-sex marriages are unconstitutional in June.

That ruling led to much celebration among same-sex marriage supporters, but left many religious conservatives feeling attacked by the Court

Religious freedom, a founding principle of the United States, is deeply ingrained American hearts and minds. And to many religious conservatives, the Constitutionally-protected right has become increasingly compromised. 

Last December a poll by Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research conducted between Dec. 10 and Dec. 13, found that the percentage of Americans who feel the government does a somewhat or very good job of protecting the freedom of religion has fallen from 75 percent in 2011 to 55 percent in 2015.

When it comes to prayer during government meetings, the Supreme Court has previously upheld the right of one small town in upstate New York to open meetings with a ceremonial prayer. In 2014, the Court ruled 5-4 that the Town of Greece did not violate separation of church and state.

“From the earliest days of the Nation, these invocations have been addressed to assemblies comprising many different creeds,” Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote in the majority opinion. “These ceremonial prayers strive for the idea that people of many faiths may be united in a community of tolerance and devotion.”

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This report contains material from the Associated Press.