SALISBURY — Rowan County commissioners opened their meeting with a Christian prayer Monday, then voted to seek legal defense against a lawsuit aiming to stop that practice.
After an hour-and-a-half closed session and 26 public comments in their open meeting, commissioners voted unanimously to fight the federal suit filed last week by the American Civil Liberties Union.
Rowan County Commission Chairman Jim Sides told the Post after the meeting he hopes the litigation goes all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court — and Rowan taxpayers, to some degree, will bear the burden.
“We think that it’s not just a matter of principle for this county,” Sides said. “It’s a matter of principle for the state of North Carolina, every county in North Carolina and the United States.”
A year after first warning commissioners that sectarian prayers were unconstitutional, the ACLU filed the action on behalf of three Rowan County residents who said they felt their rights were violated by a government body favoring one religion, Christianity, in its meeting invocations.
But Sides responded by saying the prayers were a constitutional right and protected by free speech.
“When we pray or I pray, I’m not praying based on some formatted prayer that I’ve made up,” he said. “I’m praying through what’s within, not what’s without. Because of that, I think it’s a freedom of speech and they’re infringing on my First Amendment right.”
Sides said community leaders have pledged to contribute to a legal defense fund, but the board isn’t accepting donations at this time.
He said he expects those gifts to help, but taxpayers will have to share some of the burden.
“To some degree, there’s no way you can remove the cost from the taxpayer. They had to pay tonight. They had to pay today when we met in special session ... to some degree they’re going to have to pay,” Sides said.
“Do I think we can raise hundreds of thousands of dollars? I certainly do, and I think there are people out there who will come forward with that money. We’re not prepared to accept money at this time, but those are decisions we’ll make later on how that will be handled.”
When contacted by phone following the meeting, Liesa Montag-Siegel and Bob Voelker — two of the three Rowan residents named in the complaint — said they hoped for a quick resolution.
Forsyth County recently lost a Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals decision regarding sectarian prayer at public meetings after a five-year battle.
“I’m disappointed that they’re not just going to look at their next door neighbors and follow the law,” Montag-Siegel said.
Voelker said he’s committed to taking the litigation “as far as it goes.”
“I’m disappointed because I was hoping it could be resolved quickly but apparently that’s not going to happen,” he said. “I guess we’re going to have to take it as far as it goes. I think all of us are committed to doing that.”
Vice Chairman Craig Pierce started the emergency meeting at 4:30 p.m. with a Christian invocation and commissioners quickly went into closed session to speak with county attorney Jay Dees. He was joined by attorney Bryce Neier of the Alliance Defending Freedom.
Following the closed session, Sides gave Neier an unrestricted amount of time to speak prior to the public comment period, when speakers got three minutes apiece.
In that time, Neier said he was not a counselor for Rowan County, but was involved in the 2011 Joyner et. al. v. Forsyth County commissioners case. He urged commissioners to fight.
“Sometimes the courts are right and sometimes the courts are not right,” he said.
In the Joyner decision, Judge J. Harvie Wilkinson III ruled prayer should be non-denominational and should “send a signal of welcome, rather than exclusion.”
Neier also encouraged Rowan County citizens to support the commissioners’ decision.
“It’s your choice. Nobody can take that away from you,” Neier said. “Don’t let the ACLU tell you what to do. My personal opinion? They’re not your friend. They’re not.”
Onlookers packed the J. Newton Cohen Sr. Room on the second floor of the Rowan County administration building, with a few dozen others watching via TV in a spillover room. About 125 attended the meeting, a sharp decline from last year’s response to the ACLU’s warning letter when prayer supporters spilled out of the government building and onto the sidewalk.
Several who spoke at the meeting last year, like Salisbury resident Larry Wright and Gold Hill resident Joe Teeter, again voiced support for the commissioners.
Cornerstone Baptist Church Pastor Bill Godair held up a large model check to attendees. He said his Salisbury church would pledge $10,000 toward commissioners’ legal defense fund.
In an interview prior to the hearing, Godair said he decided Saturday to financially back commissioners. He said he told his church the next day.
“We’re offended, too,” Godair said of the ACLU suit. “I’m offended that anyone would even bring up a lawsuit, period, over prayer.”
Of the 26 speakers, 23 supported the commissioners. Some, including a few pastors, quoted scripture, often finishing to an approving chorus of “Amen.”
Pamela Perrien, of Salisbury, used her time to sing, “Jesus Is the Sweetest Name I Know,” with many participants singing along.
But others voiced support of the three Rowan residents named in the complaint, including Nan Lund.
Rowan County Democratic Chairwoman Veleria Levy likened the conditions of those against sectarian prayers to civil rights supporters in the ’60s.
As an African American, she said, she recalled some who used Christianity to promote segregation.
“There were people who stood with Bibles and burned crosses and kept my ancestors from being able to live their dream,” Levy said.
“There were people that came together when the schools were integrated and stood there on the front lines, Bible in hand, and spit on those children trying to go to school. That is how I feel as an American and as a Rowan County citizen.”
John Burke, of Salisbury, who also spoke last year, echoed his concerns for spending taxpayer money on the legal defense.
Geoffrey Hoy, president of the Rowan County Senior Democrats, urged commissioners to stop.
“I do not believe that your job description calls you to be religious leaders,” Hoy said.
Following the meeting, Sides said his religious views were one of the reasons citizens voted him onto the board.
“You have to understand, if I have to vote on a financial issue, a fiscal issue, for Rowan County, am I supposed to listen to three people who disagree with my vote or should I vote my convictions based on the people who elected me?” Sides asked. “I can’t go to them on a fiscal matter. They’ve elected me to make those decisions, and I intend to make them based on what I think they expect out of me.”
Contact reporter Nathan Hardin at 704-797-4246 or follow him on Twitter at @rowanpol.