Speakers urge commissioners: Keep praying 'in Jesus' name'
By Karissa Minn
SALISBURY — Someone walking by the county administration building Monday night could have mistaken what was going on inside for a church revival.
In the lobby, a multitude of people sang hymns and joined in prayer. In the county commissioners’ meeting room upstairs, there was passionate preaching and enthusiastic calls of “amen.”
But Monday’s proceedings were part of a meeting of the Rowan County Board of Commissioners. During the public comment period, about two dozen people stood up to speak about the way they and their commissioners pray.
The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has asked the Rowan County board to stop opening its meetings with sectarian prayer, or prayer that is specific to one religion.
The request came a month after the U.S. Supreme Court let stand a 4th Circuit Court of Appeals ruling that Forsyth County commissioners’ opening prayers are unconstitutional because they are overwhelmingly Christian, ending a five-year court battle.
Katy Parker, legal director for the state’s ACLU chapter, said last week that since the Supreme Court declined to hear Forsyth’s appeal, her organization has contacted 25-30 government bodies across the state for which it has received complaints from citizens about prayers. She said most are working with thier attorneys to comply with the 4th Circuit decision, but that Rowan “is the first one out of 25 or 30 saying that they’re going to completely disregard the law.”
Hundreds of people gathered for the meeting Monday, packing the main board room, spilling into an overflow room and filling the lobby. They waited to share their opinions — and to see what the board would do.
Chairman Chad Mitchell started the meeting with a brief invocation addressed to “Father” and made “in Jesus’ name.” Several people raised their voices in agreement with his “amen.”
All but one speaker thanked the commissioners for continuing to pray in the name of Jesus. Many said they’re worried that this is part of a movement to take away, not to protect, individual religious freedom.
“If they tell county commissioners they can’t pray, soon they’re going to be in my church telling me I can’t pray in the name of Jesus,” said Terry Brown, a western Rowan County resident.
Several Bible verses were read, including Colossians 3:17 — “Whatsoever you do in word or deed, do all in the name of Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God and the Father.”
Stanley Richert Freeborn, an evangelist from Calvary Baptist Tabernacle, said asking a Christian not to call God “Jesus” is like asking him not to call his friend “Steve,” but instead “hey you” or “hey man.”
Freeborn said he actually wants to thank the ACLU.
“I’ve wondered for a long time if we were ever going to really experience revival in our churches and in our nation,” Freeborn said. “I don’t know if the ACLU understands or not, but they’re waking up a sleeping giant.”
Salisbury resident Chris Crowell agreed that Monday night felt like a revival, but said “it’s not supposed to be when public business is being discussed.”
“I think what’s going on right now is a clear example of why we need this law, and why it should be obeyed,”he said.
Crowell, who works for the Salisbury Post in the information technology department, was the only speaker to oppose the commissioners’ method of opening in prayer. He said he thinks there’s been a misunderstanding about what the ACLU wants.
“Nobody’s trying to keep any of you folks from praying,” Crowell said. “I’d be the first in line to lay down my life for your right to believe and pray as you want to. ... I ask for the respect to not use public meetings to advance or promote your religion, and that’s what it seems to be.”
He said prayer by officials before a government meeting — but not during one — would be private, protected speech.
A moment of silence, Crowell said, is another alternative that would provide equality for those who don’t share the commissioners’ beliefs.
The ACLU has said this is a lawful option for the board. Another option is praying in general terms that do not reference a specific deity.
Parker said last week that the organization has received more complaints about Rowan County than any other government in North Carolina.
She said the complaints come from people who, like Crowell, feel like their government shouldn’t endorse a particular religion. And she said some are willing to serve as plaintiffs in a lawsuit against the county, if it comes to that.
But others at Monday’s meeting said commissioners should have the right to pray according to their beliefs, and that’s not stopping others from praying — or not praying — according to theirs.
John Bare, of Salisbury, read the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. The part having to do with religion says, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”
“I don’t see the part where you can stop someone from the free expression of their religion just because they are working in a government position,” Bare said. “You cannot be made to practice, but you also cannot be inhibited from practicing.”
He said the commissioners’ prayers are voluntary, and no one is being forced to participate in them, so they do not violate the Constitution.
“The people who are trying to push the freedom of religion out of government are nothing more than people wanting to force others to do as they say and they believe,” Bare said.
His wife, Marina, said she used to live under a system of government that “removed God from people’s lives and replaced it with fear.” She said when she came here, she was pleased to see the freedom and patriotism that people enjoy in America.
Marina Bare held up a red hammer and sickle - a symbol of the former Soviet Union — and warned that America could become the “U.S.S.R., United States of a Screwed up Republic” if people don’t stand up to the government for their freedoms.
The ACLU has said it wants an answer from Rowan commissioners by March 5 — the date of the county board’s next meeting.
So far, four out of the five commissioners have said they don’t intend to change the way they pray, because they believe strongly that as Christians they should pray in Jesus’ name.
Commissioner Raymond Coltrain said last week that he doesn’t mind using different words to convey the same meaning when he prays. He said the important thing is that God knows his intent.
Commissioner Jim Sides has said he will continue to pray in the name of Jesus and will volunteer to go to jail over it. This consequence, along with a fine, may come about if a lawsuit is filed and a judge orders commissioners to stop, Jay Dees, the county’s attorney, said last week.
Some speakers Monday encouraged board members to keep doing what they’re doing, no matter the consequences.
John Melton, a China Grove resident and pastor of Tabernacle Baptist Church, said he admires those on the board who will pray in the name of Jesus Christ.
“Born-again children of God — that’s what we need running this country,” he said. “It’s time to make up your mind whose side you’re on.”
Contact reporter Karissa Minn at 704-797-4222.