By L.A. Williams, Correspondent
Christian Action League
ASHEVILLE — A magistrate’s recent recommendation in a lawsuit involving prayer at Forsyth County meetings has led commissioners in Buncombe County to outlaw the longstanding practice of a pre-meeting invocation and to imply that area municipalities may want to follow suit.
The Buncombe County board made its decision in closed session after hearing from County Attorney Michael Frue, who not only advised the county board, but at the request of Chairman David Gantt, e-mailed his advice to area municipalities.
“The Forsyth case is based on facts establishing that out of 33 invocations prior to meetings only 7 did not contain some reference to Jesus, Jesus Christ, Christ, Savior, or the Trinity, and none of those 33 invocations invoked another deity associated with any faith other than Christianity,” wrote Frue in explaining the implications of the magistrate’s recommendation. “Such statistics are no doubt common here in the Bible Belt and I believe are also fairly representative of such a sampling before our Board.”
The attorney’s e-mail missive raised the ire of at least one Asheville City Council member who, although headed out of office, is urging fellow officials to “demonstrate more courage and conviction than others may muster in defending the right to pray in political chambers.”
“Anything less mocks both the Constitution and those who value their freedom of religion and the opportunities found within,” wrote outgoing Asheville Councilman Carl Mumpower in an e-mail to the mayor and council.
“It would be my suggestion that we thank Commission Chair Gantt and his colleagues for their pass along, but respectfully decline to join their premature race for the exit.”
In his e-mail to municipalities, Frue admitted that Magistrate P. Trevor Sharp’s recommendation that Forsyth County’s practice of having sectarian prayer before meetings be ruled in violation of the First Amendment has not been adopted by the presiding judge and that Forsyth has filed an objection. However, he was also quick to point out that if Forsyth loses they will have to pay nominal costs plus some $100,000 for the plaintiff’s attorney fees.
“I believe that selecting clergy or other invocators at random and leaving the invocation content up to them will likely always lead to violations,” Frue wrote, highlighting the county board’s decision to ban opening prayer beginning Jan. 5, 2010 and instead ask for a moment of silence before the meeting.
“This is such a sad irony that the very constitutional amendment that allows us free speech and freedom of religion is now being used to silence Christian prayers,” said the Rev. Mark Creech, executive director of the Christian Action League. “It is our hope that given these two examples, more government bodies will choose to follow Mumpower’s lead, to stand up for our right to speak freely and to pray in the public square as our conscience leads us.”
Mumpower said in his eight years on the Asheville City Council he has never had anyone complain about the council’s practice of taking turns giving a pre-meeting invocation, nor does he recall receiving an e-mail from the county commission offering unsolicited legal advice on a particular issue.
“It was obvious that this was a recruiting effort,” Mumpower said. He said his e-mail response was to try to “encourage my colleagues not to step away from our tradition.”
“A magistrate judge’s decision to pull the plug on chamber prayer does not exactly qualify as a precedent setting legal milestone that should lead us to retreat from a longstanding and meaningful practice,” he said.
Like Mumpower, leaders in Northampton County are ready to take a stand for their right to pray before meetings. Commissioners in the northeastern North Carolina County told the Roanoke Daily Herald last month they do not plan to change their policy as a result of the Forsyth judge’s recommendation.
“If there is ever a time we needed prayer, it’s now,” Vice Chairwoman Fannie P. Greene told the newspaper. “I think it needs to stay as is.”
The Forsyth case stems from a 2007 suit filed by three members of the Forsyth chapter of Americans United for Separation of Church and State who are being represented by the American Civil Liberties Union of North Carolina. With the help of the Alliance Defense Fund, Forsyth County has defended its policy which provides that the Clerk of the Board mail invitations to all clergy in the county offering them a chance to pray before a Board meeting “according to the dictates of (the leader’s) own conscience.” It asks that those who pray not disparage any other faith and not exploit the occasion to proselytize. Clergy members sign up on a first-come basis.
Magistrate Sharp acknowledged that Forsyth’s prayer policy did many things right, such as its attempt to encourage diversity, but concluded that since the prayers given by those who signed up were not diverse that they violate the Establishment Clause of the U.S. Constitution.
“This idea that the only way to have freedom is by engineered diversity is certainly not the intent of the Constitution’s First Amendment,” said the Rev. Creech. “We are hopeful that Chief U.S. District Judge James A. Beaty Jr. will take more of a strict constructionist view of this issue as he makes the final decision expected early next year.”