PRAYER: Local officials discuss prayer in public meetings

Nov. 17, 2013 @ 05:02 AM

Pending a decision from the U.S. Supreme Court in the next several months, some local governing boards may have to rethink how they open their meetings.

The country's highest court heard arguments earlier this month regarding prayer in public meetings, stemming from a lawsuit against a town council in New York which nearly always opens its meetings with Christian prayers. This is the first time the court has taken up such a case since 1983, when it ruled the Nebraska Legislature did not violate citizens' First Amendment rights by having official prayers.

"By not inviting God, we are shutting him out"

A majority of the Lee County Commissioners openly offer up Christian prayers in the name of Jesus Christ before their meetings at the Lee County Government Center — and to not do so, some commissioners said, would be an affront to their and the people's spiritual affairs. 

"The spiritual reason is by not inviting God, we are shutting him out," said Lee County Commissioner Jim Womack, who identifies as a born-again Christian. "We are ignoring his divine providence."

Womack asked for Lee County residents to consider praying from 10 a.m. to noon Nov. 6 when Supreme Court justices heard arguments in the Greece v. Galloway case during the Nov. 4 commission meeting.

The National Association of Counties held an online seminar concerning this case with constitutional experts, Womack said. He joined in and said he was elated to see their opinions matched his own and was "pleasantly surprised by their consensus" for free and open prayer in local jurisdictions.

Lee County Commissioner Chairman Charlie Parks agreed, adding it was "a tragedy our courts would even bother hearing" the case. 

"The thing is the Supreme Court has already decided this, twice," Parks said, who identifies "first as a Christian and secondly" as a Southern Baptist.

There might be some residents who object to the commissioners' prayers to God or Jesus, Womack said, but the people chose their representatives and if the people elect someone from the "Wiccan coven or Islamic persuasion or Jewish descent" then they would have the right to pray as they see fit.

"I do think it would be inappropriate for the board of commissioners or any jurisdiction looking to be diverse to invite Wiccans or Jews or Islamists to come and pray just so we have diversity," he said. "Then government is interfering with the spiritual affairs of the people."

Lee County Attorney Neil Yarborough, who has also represented nearly a dozen other local governments, said he doesn't believe the Supreme Court would have selected the case — which was appealed after a lower court ruled the town's prayers unconstitutional — if "they weren't going to do something with it."

"It is a common belief that the United States has been blessed by God," said Yarborough, who identifies as a Southern Baptist. "And for that reason it is not inappropriate for us to call to (Him). That isn't to say someone who didn't feel that way should be made to feel uncomfortable. But at the same token, you shouldn't infringe the rights of the many because it might make the minority uncomfortable."

Clerk to the Board of Commissioners Gaynell Lee said in her 30 years as clerk, she has never received a complaint concerning the commissioners' prayers.

In Broadway, the Town Board of Commissioners also opens meetings with a prayer. Mayor Donald Andrews said he doesn't know of them ever having received a complaint, although he said he generally does address his prayers to a more generic "Lord" than specifically to Jesus, but not for any political reason.

"I haven't really given it any thought," he said. "I guess it's just how I was brought up and learned to pray."

Andrews, who identifies as Presbyterian and whose grandfather was a Baptist preacher, said Broadway meetings typically open with a prayer from him or another town official. In the past, he said, local Presbyterian minister Harold Stone also frequently gave the invocation.

"It's just part of how we do meetings," Andrews said. "We pray, say the Pledge of Allegiance and then conduct town business."

If we continued to pray "he would consider bringing suit against us"

The Sanford City Council changed its policy of praying during meetings to a moment of silence in early 2012 after the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled the Forsyth County Board of Commissioners could only open meetings with nonsectarian prayers and after residents threatened the council with a lawsuit. The Forsyth v. Joyner case was rejected by the Supreme Court for an appeal.   

"I really had mixed emotions about it because I am comfortable in my religion," said Sanford Mayor Cornelia Olive, who identifies as a Christian. "However, anytime I feel like I need more wisdom than I have I go to the Bible. In that, Jesus said render to Caesar what is Caesar's and what is God's to God. That was referring to the law at that particular time."

Olive said she uses the moment of silence to pray, and it "frees everyone else to do the same."

"There was someone who said if we pursued it, and continued to pray openly he would consider bringing suit against us," Olive said. "One woman expressed her concern about it and said that prayer, Christian prayer, made her uncomfortable."

It was after these concerns that Sanford Attorney Susan Patterson said the city council reviewed their policy and instituted the moment of silence. She said she'll be following the current case closely.

Councilman L.I. "Poly" Cohen, who identifies as Jewish, said he was never concerned if a council member prayed to Jesus during the meetings since it was everyone's right to pray how they wanted.

"Everybody's got a religion," he said. "I've got mine and they've got theirs. After the court said we couldn't have a prayer, that is when we did the moment of silence. It's a good idea. Or at least better than not doing anything."

Councilman James "J.D." Williams said he voted against replacing prayer with a moment of silence before the meetings, but that he makes the most of that moment of silence.

"I still pray," said Williams, who identifies as Missionary Baptist and is manager of the Gospel Echoes group. "I just do what I can control. I can pray when I get ready for the meeting. No one can dictate when or where or how much I do that."

The Lee County Board of Education also opens meetings with a moment of silence instead of a prayer. Chairman Dr. Lynn Smith said it has been that way for years and, he believes, was also motivated in part by previous court rulings.

"That's the way it's always been, and I'm just carrying on with what I assume was what the board attorney and previous chairs have decided was appropriate," Smith said.

Jimmy Love Sr., attorney for the school board as well as the Town of Broadway, could not be reached for comment. Smith added that he'd be worried about going down a slippery slope by allowing official prayers.

"If we decided to address the Almighty with a prayer, we would be setting a precedent," he said. "And if a different denomination of faith wanted a prayer, we'd have to grant that to them and anyone else who made a request, and I don't want to go down that path."