Most candidates aren't backing ACLU view on prayer; some willing to change methods
By Karissa Minn
SALISBURY — Rowan commissioner candidates have a wide variety of opinions on government prayer, regardless of their political parties.
Only two of the 15 candidates say the county should follow the direction of the American Civil Liberties Union of North Carolina. Five others said they would change the way they pray if ordered but would support a legal fight. One did not respond.
The ACLU has said it has received complaints about Rowan commissioners opening meetings with sectarian prayer, which is unconstitutional according to a ruling by the U.S. Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals. In January, the Supreme Court let stand a ruling that struck down Forsyth County’s prayer policy because it effectively endorsed a specific religion.
“I think we can come to a solution that will be acceptable to everybody without creating such a mess,” said Democrat Ralph Walton said. “The majority in this county is Christian, but we need to make allowances for others.”
Joel Johnson, a Republican, said he thinks it would be fair to have a moment of silence, because it allows anyone to pray or meditate as they choose.
“I feel that all citizens deserve equal protection and treatment, and that government and religion should be separate,” Johnson wrote in a Wednesday email to the Post. “While the commissioners absolutely have the right to their religious beliefs and practices, when they convene as the Board of Commissioners, they are representatives of all citizens of Rowan County, no longer functioning as individuals.”
Both said they would not use taxpayer money in a legal battle over this issue.
Twelve candidates say they believe commissioners should be able to pray however they want. Half of those would be willing to use public money to defend that practice.
Katy Parker, legal director with the ACLU of North Carolina, said Friday that rumors of a lawsuit already being filed are untrue.
“We’re investigating, and looking into whether we’ll consider pursuing legal action,” Parker said. “We have been asked by several local residents to do so.”
With the exception of Commissioner Raymond Coltrain, the current board members say they will continue to pray in Jesus’ name and could support using taxpayer money to fight a lawsuit.
Other media outlets have reported that it’s Coltrain’s turn to pray Monday, but he said Saturday he isn’t sure of that. Coltrain has said he doesn’t mind changing the wording of his prayers and is not willing to break the law.
An organization called Charlotte Athiests and Agnostics sent a letter to the county last week saying they “strongly object” to Rowan’s prayer policy.
The Freedom From Religion Foundation, a national organization of athiests and agnostics, has received at least one complaint about Rowan.
Co-president Annie Laurie Gaylor said last week that the foundation plans to send a letter as well, and it hopes legal action will not be necessary.
• • •
Corey Hill, a Democrat, said he thinks commissioners have the Constitutional right to pray according to their beliefs, and that doesn’t mean they’re telling others what to believe.
“I’m a Christian, and I would pray in the name of Jesus Christ,” Hill said. “But if someone came along and they’re Muslim, they can pray however they want, and I can’t take offense to that.”
Mike Caskey, a Republican, said he prays in Jesus’ name at school board meetings and would do the same as a commissioner.
He said he would be OK with spending a “certain amount” of county money, but he’s not sure how much.
“It’s more than a religious issue,” Caskey said. “It’s about personal freedom, and I think even non-Christians would be affected by it.”
Republican Mac Butner said he would have no problem with adding a special sales tax to pay for the county’s legal fees for this issue.
“I firmly believe that the judge’s rulings are unconstitutional,” he said. “I’m not going to deny Jesus, and I’m not going to deny Christ. ... If I have to, I will bring my own handcuffs.”
Thomas J. “Jack” Eller, a Democrat, said those who don’t want to hear the prayers can just step outside at the beginning of meetings.
As for using public funds in a legal battle, Eller said, “I would maybe put it on (the ballot in) some kind of election where they could vote for it.”
Democrat Carrol Crawford said Wednesday he would use county funds to defend commissioners’ freedom of religion, but “I would use my own money first, what little bit I got.”
Carl Dangerfield, a Republican, says he has mixed views as a detective with the Rowan County Sheriff’s Office.
“I don’t think in any way commissioners are imposing any religion,” he said. “But as a law enforcement officer... I think we have to adhere to the law.”
If elected to the board, Dangerfield said he would pray in Jesus’ name until ordered not to by a judge, at which point he’d support a legal fight.
• • •
Six candidates say they would rather see a privately funded fight for the commissioners’ practice of sectarian prayer.
Laura Eller Hutchison, a Republican, said the county should accept the help of groups like the Alliance Defense Fund that aim to defend religious freedom.
“The thought that one cannot use prayer prior to a public meeting is wrong and is a violation of my personal first amendment right guaranteeing free exercise of religion,” Hutchison wrote in a Thursday email to the Post. “We should defend our current practice, but local tax dollars should not be used in this effort.”
Republican Gus Andrews said that he gave religion-specific prayers when he was on the county board, and he will do so if he is elected again.
“I feel like if it got to that point (of legal action), commissioners would probably not have to use taxpayer money,” Andrews said. “My position would be to fight it with private money.”
Several candidates said they would not want to break the law as an elected official, so they’d offer a more general prayer or a moment of silence.
William “Bill” Feather, a Republican who serves on the Granite Quarry Town Board, said he would rather each commissioner pray the way each wants to.
“But as long as the law says what it says, I’m afraid that we should follow the law,” Feather said. “We laid our hand on a Bible and gave our oath to uphold the laws the of United States and also the state of North Carolina.”
Democrat Leda Shuping Belk also said commissioners should comply with the court ruling until the law of the land changes.
“Right now, we need to pray like the Supreme Court tells us we can pray,” Belk said. “I believe my Lord hears me whether I say it out loud or not.”
She said she would support taking a stand against the ruling with private donations, but she can’t agree with using public money when the county is struggling to meet so many needs.
Gene Miller, a Republican, said he respects and admires “the people who are fighting for their right to pray openly using the name of Jesus and Our Lord.”
He said he would be fine with praying in general terms at public meetings to comply with the law.
“If I am so fortunate to be elected to the Rowan County Commission, I will continue to take my direction from the Bible but I will also take an oath as commissioner to represent all the people equally, regardless of race or religion,” Miller wrote.
Republican Craig Pierce said he believes commissioners are doing the right thing by taking a stand, but he doesn’t think it will help the county if they use public money or go to jail for it.
“I don’t think it’s fair that we take taxpayer money and pursue an issue that is strictly about personal beliefs,” Pierce said. “If it needs to be addressed, then these groups that feel strongly about it need to be the ones to take the lead and pursue it with the legislature or in court.”
Democrat Travis Summitt did not return calls or emails for comment.
Contact reporter Karissa Minn at 704-797-4222.
Facebook: facebook.com/ Karissa.SalisburyPost