By L.A. Williams, Correspondent
Christian Action League
May 8, 2013
MONROE — Union County Commissioners who have said they plan to continue their practice of opening meetings with prayer despite threats from a Wisconsin-based atheist organization have received an outpouring of support and encouragement from local residents.
“All of our board have received so much support, so many e-mails and letters,” said Commissioner Frank Aikmus, who admitted at first he wasn’t sure how far he should push the fight when the first complaint came in February.
“When I got the first letter, my initial thought was, ‘as an elected official, is it my right to spend tax dollars on something like this?’ But some things have happened to me personally that have reaffirmed to me the power of prayer, and I don’t think there is anything this country needs more than prayer,” he said Tuesday. “Part of my obligation to my county is to pray for knowledge and wisdom as we make decisions.”
The five-member board rotates the privilege of praying before meetings, with members either offering an invocation themselves or inviting someone such as a local pastor to pray. The Freedom From Religion Foundation, which has targeted a number of county bodies in North Carolina, called the prayers sectarian and unconstitutional and sent an e-mail May 3 reiterating its demand that the board respond and cease praying.
The board hasn’t taken any formal position in response to the threats. Jerry Simpson, chairman, said no commissioner had asked for a change in the invocation procedure.
“We are committed to stand firm,” Aikmus said. “Isn’t this what this country was founded on, defending our rights?”
Simpson said the issue has been a struggle for him as he analyzed it from a personal faith perspective and as an elected official.
“The local courts have ruled that sectarian prayer is unconstitutional. As a result to use the name of Jesus Christ in a public meeting prayer is illegal under our law. I have a responsibility to uphold that law as I swore (on the Bible) to do so,” he said, explaining the dilemma. “As a Christian, ‘I am not ashamed of the gospel’; … ‘whoever confesses Me before men, him I will also confess before my father who is in heaven. But whoever denies Me before men, him I will also deny before My father who is in heaven,” — for me, to attempt to hide behind a non-sectarian prayer is in fact a denial.”
“There is no doubt that our beliefs, which should translate into our values, are under attack. As a commissioner and a Christian, I continue to pray for guidance regarding this issue,” he added.
Knowing the commissioners might be under pressure to simply acquiesce to the complaint, the Rev. Tim Rogers of Ebenezer Baptist Church in Indian Trail asked his church to approve a letter of encouragement.
“I understand the Supreme Court would not take up this case when another North Carolina county was battling it. However, I believe we need to take a stand in peaceful rebuttal to our judicial arm of government,” he said. “It is high time for us to remember that the same clause that states the government will not form a state religion also states the government will not impede the free exercise thereof.”
He said he could care less if the commissioners asked an Imam, a Rabbi or a Protestant to pray as long as they were guaranteed freedom to pray as they saw fit.
“If the commissioners chose an Imam to pray and he used the name ‘Allah’ or ‘The Prophet Mohammed,’ I would not say anything because I would be limiting his freedom to exercise his religion,” he said. “But if a Christian is invited to pray we should be just as open to him or her using the name Jesus.”
It’s that freedom of expression that Aikmus believes the board must defend, not just at board meetings but for every taxpayer in the county.
“I can’t help but remember Esther 4:14 where it talks about ‘who knows but that you have come to your position for such a time as this?'” he said. “We are here for a reason… this reaffirms to me that this is what I am here for… we’re just not backing down.”
The Rev. Rogers suggested that people who support the Constitutional rights of freedom of religion and freedom of speech write the commissioners a letter of encouragement.
“Many of our commissioners want to stand for what is right but they feel they are going to be alone in their stand. They want to know what their constituents feel, not some political group in Wisconsin,” he said.