RICHMOND, Va. (AP) - A federal appeals court says a North Carolina county commission's practice of opening meetings with Christian prayers and inviting audience members to join is unconstitutional.

The 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals on Friday upheld a lower court decision that said the prayers violated the Constitution's ban on mixing church and state.

The full court in Richmond, Virginia examined the case in March after a divided-three-judge panel endorsed the prayer practice as long as commissioners don't pressure others to participate.

The American Civil Liberties Union sued the commission on behalf of three people who said the prayer practice was coercive and discriminatory.

Judge Paul Niemeyer wrote in a dissent that the majority opinion "actively undermines the appropriate role of prayer in American civil life."