By Tami Fitzgerald
Christian Action League
Despite closed-door discussions about discontinuing prayer before their meetings, Bumcombe County Commissioners opened January’s monthly meeting with a prayer given by the Rev. Ralph Sexton Jr. “in Christ’s name.” During the meeting, citizens of Buncombe County made statements about whether the practice should continue during the public comment period, but Commissioners did not take up the issue on their agenda. Most of the 11 residents who spoke on the issue favored continuing the policy of inviting clergy to pray just after the pledge of allegiance at the beginning of meetings.
As we reported earlier, the issue surfaced after Buncombe County Attorney Michael Frue advised the Bumcombe County board to cease the pre-meeting prayers because of a lawsuit challenging similar prayers at Forsyth County Commissioner meetings. Frue’s recommendation led to a closed session on December 1 where commissioners talked about their own prayer policy, which is very similar to Forsyth County’s. Frue said at the time that commissioners had decided to switch to a moment of silence, but Commissioners’ Chairman David Gantt said no decision had been made. That appears to remain the case, as the practice of allowing local clergy to pray before meetings continues.
The American Civil Liberties Union of North Carolina (ACLU) has written letters over the past few years to many counties and cities throughout North Carolina, threatening them with a lawsuit if they did not cease praying before meetings. Forsyth County received such a threat from the ACLU and decided not to back down. Three members of the Forsyth chapter of Americans United for Separation of Church and State who are being represented by the ACLU filed a suit against the Forsyth County Commissioners challenging the constitutionality of offering prayers before public meetings. 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.
U.S. Magistrate P. Trevor Sharp issued an opinion in the Forsyth case that Forsyth County’s prayer practice is an unconstitutional establishment of religion. The Magistrate’s opinion in the Forsyth case has not been adopted by the presiding judge and Forsyth County has filed an objection, so there is no final resolution of Forsyth County’s prayer policy. But the Magistrate’s opinion was apparently enough to scare the Buncombe County Attorney into backing down. At least for now, the Buncombe County Commissioners have not backed down and are continuing the policy of inviting local clergy to pray before their meetings.
“The First Amendment admonition against the establishment of a religion by the government should never be used to abolish the right of citizens to pray before public meetings,” said the Rev. Mark Creech, executive director of the Christian Action League. “The question remains. If the only prayers that are allowed are non-sectarian, then to whom are we praying? To deny that prayer has an object—the one true, holy God Almighty—is to deny our citizens the very right to practice their religion, a right that is guaranteed by the First Amendment.” Rev. Creech encouraged all citizens in Buncombe and Forsyth Counties to call their County Commissioners and express appreciation for continuing their policies of praying before meetings.