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Court: N.C. commissioners’ prayer practice violated Constitution

RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — 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 (July 14) 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 and 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 the 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.”

“In finding Rowan County’s prayer practice unconstitutional, essentially because the prayers were sectarian, the majority’s opinion strikes at the very trunk of religion, seeking to outlaw most prayer given in government assemblies, even though such prayer has been an important part of the fabric of our democracy and civic life,” he wrote. Four other judges also dissented.

The full 4th Circuit heard the case in March after a divided three-judge panel said Rowan County commissioners had a constitutional right to open meetings with prayers as long as they don’t pressure observers to participate.

The American Civil Liberties Union filed the lawsuit on behalf of non-Christians who say the prayers made them feel excluded and sent the message that the board favored a particular religion.

Attorneys for Rowan County argued that the prayers fell within the bounds of the practice endorsed by the Supreme Court. The commissioners don’t force anyone to participate, their attorneys said, noting that people can leave the room or stay seated during the prayer. Since the lower court’s decision deemed the prayers unconstitutional, the commission has invited a volunteer chaplain to lead prayer.

Board of Commissioners Chairman Greg Edds said in an email that it will be meeting with its legal team in the coming weeks to decide the next steps. Mike Berry, deputy general counsel for the First Liberty Institute — one of the firms representing the county, said it will be up to the county whether to appeal, but he believes the case is ripe for Supreme Court review because it conflicts with the justices’ prior rulings.

The First Liberty Institute is also involved in a similar case in Michigan. In that case, a divided three-judge panel of the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said the Jackson County Board of Commissioners’ tradition of Christian-only prayers was unconstitutional. The full 6th Circuit heard arguments in the case last month.

If the two circuits split, the Supreme Court may feel more compelled to take up the issue.

The chairman of the Rowan County didn’t immediately respond to an email Friday.

The 4th Circuit said the intimate local board meeting setting, as opposed to a gathering of Congress or state lawmakers, increases the risk that residents would feel coerced to participate in the prayers moments before seeking approval for things such as zoning petitions and permits applications. The judges also found it troubling that the commissioners’ prayers sometimes implied that other faiths were “in some way condemned,” with messages suggesting that Christianity was “the one and only way to salvation.”

ACLU of North Carolina Legal Director Chris Brook, who argued the case, called the ruling a “great victory for the rights of all residents to participate in their local government without fearing discrimination.”

“No one in this community should fear being forced by government officials to participate in a prayer, or fear being discriminated against because they didn’t participate in a prayer before a meeting for all the public,” Nan Lund, one of the residents who brought the case, said in a statement.

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  • Don’t understand this prayer thing.

    If you believe in a God who loves you, wants the best for you and can deliver then he’s going to do what’s best for you – whether you ask him to or not. If it’s just that he wants (needs?) you to ask/implore/beg he has a serious character defect, or do you think that he will withhold good things from you if you aren’t appropriately obsequious? Either way that makes him a rather sad and definitely imperfect God doesn’t it?

    If God, and therefore his “plan”, are perfect what’s the point of asking him to change it (he can’t as that would make him and, inevitably, the “plan” imperfect). And therefore the one-in-several occasions when prayers get “answered” positively can’t be due to the prayer; it would have happened anyways because ………..perfect.

    Conclusion – either prayer is just a technique for getting believers to self-indoctrinate or your God is an unreliable deity with serious cognitive failings.

  • Who said, “Be not like the hypocrites who love to pray in public”?

    No one important.

  • The courts have been pretty consistent in their rulings against issues like this, prayer at school-sponsored events, displays of the ten commandments. Often just the threat of lawsuits by FFR, the ACLU and parents have caused some schools and governments to back down.

  • I asked Sandy and gave her your hint…she said “well if it was no one important then that eliminates Moses and John Piper”…

  • Christianity at it core is about following a man with no political power who never saw this this country. If we prayer like he did a little more I really don’t think we would disturb anyone.

  • Government is supposed to be neutral regarding religion and that is what the courts have generally upheld. Note that just because something has been allowed, even for years, doesn’t mean it’s constitutional. It’s just that no one has bothered to challenge it.

    If you are a Christian you probably wouldn’t understand why it is coercive. Lets imagine a city council in Michigan with a majority of Muslim council members and they started off the session with a Muslim prayer. A Christian then might get “coercive”.

  • Thanks for the education – I reviewed them both in Wikipedia and will continue my research. While I disagree with their interpretation of neutrality, I understand how long-held and established practices hold weight with the SCOTUS. I also noticed in the first opinion it mentioned an audience composed of adults, indicating a different standard for minors.

  • Rev 3:20 – had the picture on my wall when I was a kid – tried it, really, really tried it, when I was eight – reality kept breaking through. And it isn’t really about ongoing prayer is it?

    My turn –

    See Matt. 6:11
    Prayer is asking for things that a decent, caring god would provide without being asked.

    Unless, of course, you regard the unknown author of the Revelation to be more authoritative than the allegedly quoted sermoniser on the mount.

  • No it isn’t – time is measured by people. In days gone by when people only had superstition to go on those in authority were able to impose their ideas on others – some chose one particular possible event (and got it seriously wrong to boot).

    You are, I assume, aware that many others measure time by basing their calendars on equally arbitrary and (in the context of 13.8bn years) irrelevant different events/people aren’t you?

  • Both are of equal authority. There are no levels of inspiration in scripture – levels of application yes. Jesus is the model of how we should go to God in prayer. And He knows what we need before we ask. Paul also models prayer. And the Psalms too (however I would be careful how I apply the imprecatory Psalms – don’t want anyone to get hurt) 😉
    We walk by faith and not by sight. God hears us even when we don’t “feel” like He does.

  • Seeking clarification – you are a Christian and you regard the words of the Christ as of no more importance than those of an unknown writer commenting, in code, on the behaviour of previous roman rulers?

  • All scripture is given by inspiration of God and is profitable for doctrine reproof for correction for instruction in righteousness that the man of God may be complete equipped for every good work. 2 Tim. 3:16-17.

  • AM – (Anno Mundi)

    SE – (Saka Era)

    BH/AH – (Before/After Hijra)

    BE – (Buddhist Era) – various versions

    and the commonly accepted usage of BCE and CE.

  • I use C.E. (common era) and B.C.E. (before common era). Same numbering system but it removes Jesus from the name.

  • And so do most academics but even then CE is the same as AD and BCE is the same as BC so it still follows the Christian measurement of time.

  • Official government meetings should not resemble church services. One reason the Supreme Court in Town of Greece v. Galloway upheld legislative prayer invocations was because the town of Greece “maintained that a minister or layperson of any persuasion, including an atheist, could give the invocation.”

    But the commissioners allowed only themselves to give invocations, and these “invocations” bordered on Christian worship services. A captive audience of non-Christian and non-religious citizens were routinely urged to join in the worship.

    To be lawful, the commissioners would have to open the invocations up to citizens other than themselves. Citizens of other faiths and viewpoints would have to be allowed to volunteer on a rotating basis, not just Christian.

  • The prayers, given solely by the commissioners themselves, were considered coercive because captive audience members, consisting of many non-Christian and non-religious citizens, were routinely implored to join in worship.

    Immediately following the worship exercises, the commissioners would then adjudicate various citizen requests and complaints. The citizens who refused to join in the worship exercises were jeered and booed by other audience members. Non-Christians questioned whether they could receive fair treatment by the Board.

  • Maybe you don’t understand Circular Reasoning. Here’s a short review.

    circulus in demonstrando (also known as: paradoxical thinking, circular argument, circular cause and consequence, reasoning in a circle)

    Description: A type of reasoning in which the proposition is supported by the premises, which is supported by the proposition, creating a circle in reasoning where no useful information is being shared. This fallacy is often quite humorous.

    X is true because of Y.
    Y is true because of X.

    Example: The Bible is the Word of God because God tells us it is… in the Bible.

    I merely elaborated on how I define inspiration.

  • But we don’t use those terms – well, maybe you do. But the rest of the western world doesn’t.

  • Yes they are the same. Christianity gave us a reference point but the pagan Babylonians and Romans gave us our measurment of time.

  • And Christianity is still giving us a reference point – if we’ll only listen… 😉

  • “The citizens who refused to join in the worship exercises were jeered and booed by other audience members. Non-Christians questioned whether they could receive fair treatment by the Board.”
    Please provide evidence for this.

  • See, as one example, Lund, 103 F. Supp. 3d at 729: “The Commissioners’ statements also develop the atmosphere of coercion surrounding Board meetings. To the extent that ‘[i]t is presumed that the reasonable observer is acquainted with this tradition’ of legislative prayer, a reasonable observer would likewise be aware of such public statements made by Commissioners outside of meetings. Town of Greece, 134 S.Ct. at 1826 (plurality opinion). The public statements attributed to the Commissioners indicate that at least some of the Commissioners have a preference for Christianity, and that they perceive the prayer practice as being for the benefit of the citizens of Rowan County, not just for themselves. Likewise, many members of the public appear to view the prayers as being for public consumption, as indicated by the audience’s booing and jeering of an individual who expressed opposition to the Board’s prayer practice (Compl. [Doc. # 1], at ¶ 32.) While the audience’s reaction cannot be directly attributed to the Board, the audience’s jeering further develops the context and atmosphere of Board meetings, which in turn places additional pressure on Plaintiffs to conform.”

  • Because certain Christians can’t play nice with others when given a little political power.

  • Exclusively sectarian Christian prayers (as seen here) do not follow the definition of inclusive and are coercive in nature.

    If you can’t understand why asking others to join in the prayer in a government meeting is coercive, you will not have the wherewithal to understand the issues at play here.

  • If it wasn’t meant to be coercive, then why ask others to join in the prayer, LED BY THE OFFICIALS who were hearing requests and complaints?

    That act alone gave the impression that those who did not join, would not expect to be treated fairly. Even the impression of sectarian bias here, is enough to demonstrate how inappropriate the prayer was.

    It still comes down to two things which make it improper:
    1. Exclusively Christian prayers
    2. Requesting the audience to join

  • “This raises another issue. The legal criterion is a reasonable person, not someone whose idea of decorum is booing and jeering”

    The officials created the atmosphere of hostility and supported it from the audience.

    “Plaintiff Lund suffers from a neurosis”

    You suffer from a veracity impairment disorder. Your whole argument assumes everyone is both Christian and of the sect which holds such prayers in public. The fact that the prayers were entirely Christian is in of itself a violation.

  • You may be citing those decisions but you are dead wrong. Jim has it correctly. Prayers must be ecumenical in nature. Not meant to show favoritism to one faith or another. Not exclusively one faith.

    I guess the Establishment Clause is inconvenient to your faith.

  • Not at all. Your definition is extremely and dishonestly narrow. If one has to set themselves apart from the crowd in public, it is coercive as well. By asking audience participation, it became so.

    “so all I have is its conclusion they were Christian.”

    You must think I have an impaired sense of smell not to notice the BS you are piling here.

    “Based on the other sloppiness in the opinion, that also may be suspect.”

    “Sloppy” because you do not agree with the decision.

    I find nothing “sloppy” about the decision, which goes through various distinguishing cases on the subject and delivers an opinion in line accumulated decisions on the subject.

    As past coercion cases and the Town of Greece plurality emphasize, context is key in Establishment Clause violations involving coercive practices. Here, the Board’s legislative prayer practice leads to prayers adhering to the faiths of five elected Commissioners. The Board maintains exclusive and complete control over the content of the prayers, and only the Commissioners deliver the prayers. In turn, the Commissioners ask everyone—including the audience—to stand and join in what almost always is a Christian prayer. On the whole, these details and context establish that Defendant’s prayer practice is an unconstitutionally coercive practice in violation of the Establishment Clause. The practice “sends the . . . message to members of the audience who are nonadherents `that they are outsiders, not full members of the political community, and an accompanying message to adherents that they are insiders, favored members of the political community.'”

  • I can’t help it if you are so obviously incorrect that your only response to the decision was “it was sloppy” and to make false statements about the general facts.

  • You made a nonsense assertion, that he was mistaken. Neither case supports your view and both were cited by the court here and distinguished.

  • It is a shame that a threatened lawsuit is often the only thing that gets people to act ethically 🙁

  • I didn’t say that I agree with SCOTUS just that I was misinformed regarding their rulings and reasonings on the subject. I was also surprised at their recent ruling regarding funds for church playgrounds. It seems to me the lower courts take a stance more in line with my expectations. Being ruled constitutional isn’t the same as being right or wrong, which is another can of worms.

  • Well we needed a reference point and Dionysius Exiguus gave us one. As you go through the days of your week be sure to remember they pay homage to various pagan gods.?

  • The Appeals court itself characterized the routine calls from the Commissioners for the audience to stand and join them in prayer as “worship”: “A commissioner then asks the community to join him in worship, using phrases such as ‘Let us pray,’ ‘Let’s pray together,’ or ‘Please pray with me.’ The invocations end with a communal ‘Amen’…”

    Such prayer is a religious exercise, also known as worship. A government official, directing citizens to stand and to ‘please pray with me’ can certainly be characterized as imploring the audience to participate. You are making a distinction without a difference. It all amounts to coercion, because when a government official directs you to do something, and it is obvious to the rest of the acquiescent audience that you are not conforming to the request, that amounts to coercion. When you oppose the sectarian prayer practice foisted upon you by government officials, and the crowd jeers you for it, that is coercion.

    Or as the Appeals Court put it: “Relative to sessions of Congress and state legislatures, the intimate setting of a municipal board meeting presents a heightened potential for coercion. Local governments possess the power to directly influence both individual and community interests. As a result, citizens attend meetings to petition for valuable rights and benefits, to advocate on behalf of cherished causes, and to keep tabs on their elected representatives—in short, to participate in democracy. The decision to attend local government meetings may not be wholly voluntary in the same way as the choice to participate in other civic or community functions. Going to one’s seat of government and going to one’s place of worship are ‘very different forms of attendance.’ Lund, 837 F.3d at 437.”

  • And don’t tell him about the Christian origins of the names of the months he uses!

  • You are using a quotation from your scripture to attempt to validate your assumption about your scripture – hence circular.

    FWIW, although 2Tim was probably written a handful of years after Revelations and a little longer after the work misattributed to Matthew none of them would have been regarded as settled scripture and Revelation in particular was probably unknown to 2Tim’s author. Additionally, unless he was an absolute narcissist, the writer of 2Tim would never have claimed his letter to have the status of scripture – he was presumably referring to whatever writings he chose to regard as scriptures. You are therefore retroactively misapplying this verse and giving it a status it did not have when written.

  • You are wrong. Good grief. You asked why I trust Revelation more than the gospel. I gave you the Timothy quote as a reason for my belief. That’s not circular reasoning. That is a scriptural basis for inspiration.

  • That you don’t have a leg to stand on and are engaging in sour grapes nattering. Yes, that was made crystal clear.

    The decision was not only voluminously reasoned but incorporated precedent on the subject which was considered, compared and contrasted to the facts on hand. It even cited the 2 cases you gave to Jim Johnson and distinguished them rather handily.

  • Days of the week paying
    homage to pagan gods….hmmm. So in the interest of fairness and religious neutrality shouldn’t we rename the days of the week and the months of the year? Unless there is just something about THAT “name.”

  • So pagan names don’t bother you but His name does? I can understand your anxiety.
    Hey I feel a song coming on:
    Jesus, Jesus, Jesus
    Oh there’s something about that name.
    Master Savior Jesus
    Like the fragrance after the rain
    Jesus Jesus Jesus
    Let all heaven and earth proclaim
    Kings and kingdoms will all pass away
    There is something about that name.

  • Your link is to that of the District Court decision, so everything you wrote thereafter is out of sync. The Appeals Court specifically uses the term “worship” to refer to the prayer exercises that everyone is instructed to join: “A commissioner then asks the community to join him in worship, using phrases such as ‘Let us pray,’ ‘Let’s pray together,’ or ‘Please pray with me.’ The invocations end with a communal ‘Amen’…”

    The Commissioners, government representatives, have no business asking, pleading, imploring, directing, instructing, requesting…citizens to participate in Christian-only prayer exercises. That is the height of hubris. They presume everyone in the audience is Christian. Many were, many were not. One of the plaintiffs was a Jew. The Board used their government authority to control the content of the prayers, shut out any other citizens with different viewpoints from giving invocations, and instruct non-Christians and non-believers to stand and then join them in praising their Jesus, Savior, Christ, etc. Immediately following the religious exercise, they turn to the business of adjudicating issues brought before them by the same people who either acquiesced or questioned the prayer practices of the Commissioners. Which citizens do you suppose will get a fair hearing – the acquiescent or the dissenters? No conflict of interest there, right?

    The Supreme Court in Greece v. Galloway ruled that legislative prayer can be constitutional if it does not discriminate against other faiths, is inclusive, and is not imposed upon the audience by government officials. Normally, legislative prayer is given on a rotating basis by individuals representing a diversity of beliefs, and not by government officials themselves who ask that everyone participate. This decision was a huge victory for the First Amendment.

  • You are saying that because a verse in the bible says that “scripture” is all equally inspired then the verse you isolate is valid because it is part of your “scripture” and therefore inspired. You offer no reason for thinking that the words of the writer of the revelation are equal to the purported words of God itself other than a self-validating verse in 2Tim.

    On a practical note, do you consider the bits of the bible which are known to be factually incorrect (the creation myths and the birth in Bethlehem story for examples) to be as inspired as the bits which are unable to be tested for veracity (such as the Sermon on the Mount)?

  • But how are Good, Bible Thumping Christians to show everyone else that they’re Holier Than Thou, except by public prayer? I’m sure that “No one important” understands that.

  • Yes, which I should have prefaced as being my opinion. The SCOTUS rules on Constitutionality, which can change from generation to generation.

  • I have no problem with Jesus. During my time as a Jehovah Witness I embraced some of his (attributed) views and took them with me. It’s his fundamentalist followers who irk me sometimes.

    As to changing the names, it would funny if Applebees has a “Thank god it’s Jesus” dinner special or “Moses Madness” college basketball.

  • “No one important” always understands and forgives, no matter what. That’s why he is known as My Lord and Sock Puppet.

  • That wasn’t your question to begin with. You are clearly confused and can’t keep your argument straight.

    The word for the day is “genre”.

  • So it’s His origin people are offended by. But what’s good for the goose… It is inconsistent logic.

  • Neither BC nor AD actually mention Jesus by name, they refer to him being the Messiah (before Christ) or Lord (Anno Domini). When I say tomorrow is Tuesday, that is not an acknowledgement that Tyr is the god of combat and victory.

  • I think you’re wrong about the “fundamentalist followers” of Jesus. Jesus’s fundamentals are that the oppressed, fringe, and vulnerable are favored of God, that non-violent response and non-judgment are our ways of addressing conflict, and that love for God and neighbor are our foundation. Vitriol, condemnation, and exclusion, and arbitrary consignment of others to hell are of some other kind of fundamental ilk.

  • Perhaps you’re using the wrong source. More than likely, the court is using the legal definition: of coercion What is COERCION?
    Compulsion; force; duress. It may be either actual, (direct or positive.) where physical force Is put upon a man to compel him to do an act against his will,or implied, (legal or constructive.) where the relation of the parties is such that one is under subjection to the other, and is thereby constrained to do what his free will would refuse. State v. Darlington, 153 Ind. 1, 53 N. E. 025; Cliappell v. Trent, 00 Va. S49, 19 S. E. 314; Radicli v. Ilutohins, 95 U. S. 213, 24 L. Ed. 409; Peyser v. New York, 70 N. Y. 497. 20 Am. Rep. G24; State v. Boyle, 13 R. I. 53S.

    And if you really think that prayer and worship are two separate and unrelated things, then you haven’t been to a church service led by me.

    Law Dictionary: What is COERCION? definition of COERCION (Black’s Law Dictionary)

  • It is very important to Bible Thumping Christians that they show everyone else that they are Holier Than Thou. Public Prayer is the best way to accomplish this.

  • “Jesus’s fundamentals are that the oppressed, fringe, and vulnerable are favored of God, that non-violent response and non-judgment are our ways of addressing conflict, and that love for God and neighbor are our foundation.”

    Maybe I wasn’t clear. What I have quoted from you is what I took away from my time as a Christian (except love of god).

  • Actually I was mildly irritated at your bragging so I pointed out how other religions are responsible for our measurement time. I used smiley faces to keep it lighthearted. I got into the habit of using B.C.E. and C.E. for reasons not related to religion.

  • My original questions were

    “If you believe in a God who loves you, wants the best for you and can deliver then he’s going to do what’s best for you – whether you ask him to or not. If it’s just that he wants (needs?) you to ask/implore/beg he has a serious character defect, or do you think that he will withhold good things from you if you aren’t appropriately obsequious? Either way that makes him a rather sad and definitely imperfect God doesn’t it?”

    “If God, and therefore his “plan”, are perfect what’s the point of asking him to change it (he can’t as that would make him and, inevitably, the “plan” imperfect). And therefore the one-in-several occasions when prayers get “answered” positively can’t be due to the prayer; it would have happened anyways because ………..perfect.”

    I cannot find that you have answered any of this.

    You attempted to deflect the questions by offering an irrelevant definition of prayer based on a biblical verse of dubious provenance. When I sought clarification you quoted a bible verse to validate your stance about validating bible verses – which you then claimed is not circular reasoning.

    You then misunderstood(?) my response – I didn’t suggest in any way that you preferred Revelation, merely enquired as to whether that was the case – I find it helpful to know what I’m talking about before I comment on it.

    You then extended the postings by talking about “inspiration” – your move, not mine. When I seek to ascertain your thoughts in this new area it transpires that I’m confused!

    Yeah – right.

  • A ridiculous straw man – what on earth makes you think (if that’s what you did) that I’m scared of your god’s name.

    I don’t know the rhyme you quote – but if you think that Jesus’s name smells like a wet dog I’d suggest you seek professional help.

  • I’m sorry. I wasn’t really trying to correct you. I was actually trying to point out the irony of those who claim Christ but attack with a spirit of vengeance those who believe in Jesus’s invitational manner to all who will follow. It’s also ironic that those who quote Paul, who notably said, “the letter (of th law) kills, but the spirit (of the law) makes alive,” often make a LAW of Paul’s sayings, when what he was about was expressing revelation of a loving Christ whose grace is greater than any of the laws they espouse.
    In essence I was actually trying to express solidarity with your sentiments. And as far as God is concerned scripture claims that one cannot love God without loving fellow humans.

  • Jim thanks for your transparency but I certainly had no intentions of irritating you. I took our exchange as lighthearted banter. And my “bragging” wasn’t meant to be taken seriously either. As you can probably tell I like to have a little fun now and then on these threads. But feel free to let me know if my “humor” get a little too much.

  • Gaither song. Listen to it on youtube. Once you hear it it sticks in you head.
    Jesus smells like a wet dog? You DO have problems with reading comprehension. Lol.
    You’re the who identifies with a dog so maybe you’re smelling yourself.

  • Since he needs a decent walk each day “the fragrance after the rain” is, for me, more often the smell of damp dog than any other. Just my way of highlighting the silliness of the song and, as I’m sure you know, the carpenter’s son’s name wouldn’t have been Jesus until it was Hellenised years after his death – which just adds to the general numptiness.

  • Excellent questions! Sadly your opponent seems to have no arguments or decent answers to offer us.

  • What’s silly is your fixation on it. Which proves my point: you’re just smelling yourself.

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