Some pastors say commissioners should open meetings with prayer as they do now; others seek broader solution
For some local Christian leaders, the Rowan County Board of Commissioners’ decision to continue opening meetings with prayer is a no-brainer.
But after a lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union of North Carolina, that same decision has left others scratching their heads.
Post interviews with ministers of several Christian denominations found their attitudes ranged from complete agreement with commissioners to curiosity about why the county board can’t see “the handwriting on the wall.”
“Every pastor, no matter what kind of congregation they serve, has people who are on multiple sides of that debate,” said the Rev. Keith Copeland, interim head pastor of St. Mark’s Lutheran Church in China Grove. “Unfortunately, that’s the way the conversation seems to be: either for it or against it.”
Copeland said, for him, the issue lies in a gray area.
“I understand why those who do not worship Jesus Christ would be offended. I can understand why they would feel left out,” he said. “But to tell a Christian not to pray in the name of Jesus Christ is just as offensive.”
The current debate is too narrow, Copeland said.
“The other thing to consider is why we pray,” he said. “It’s the prayer itself that binds us together.”
Copeland said he’d like to see commissioners invite members of the community together to talk about why they begin each meeting with a prayer.
“What does this prayer accomplish to those that are present at the meeting?” he asked. “If we could have that kind of conversation, then in whose name we pray would be more wide open.”
Backing the board
As the board prepares to fight the ACLU lawsuit accusing the governing body of violating the First Amendment, Bradley Taylor, pastor of the nondenominational Outreach Christian Ministries in Salisbury, said he stands behind them.
“I don’t think this is the point in time to retreat,” he said. “I don’t think by saying the name of Jesus that they are intentionally closing people out or intentionally making people feel unwelcome.”
Taylor said board members have “every right” to pray in Jesus’ name.
“If we elected these county commissioners to lead us and be in the right frame of mind when they are leading us, I support whatever is going to get them in that best place to do the best job for the county,” he said. “If they think prayer is the best thing to get them in the right mood to do the best thing for us, I want them to do that.”
Ken Koontz, senior pastor of the nondenominational Northgate Church in Salisbury, said the ACLU should back off.
“I think it’s ridiculous to pose the threat of a federal lawsuit over a simple community like ours,” he said. “I think it’s obscene that any federal or state laws should condemn any local political body of any sort for praying or expressing their beliefs in a certain way.
“I don’t see how we’ve allowed this to happen.”
Koontz said he believes the matter should be handled locally.
“I obviously can’t make someone believe like I do, but I’m not interested in having a Big Brother or having a huge menacing entity oversee my every action or every thought, especially freedom of speech.”
Koontz said he commends the board members for continuing to pray and for “invoking the name of the Lord.”
“But they need to be aware that there are others who don’t have those views,” he said. “Surely between people in the same community there can be some compromise.”
Separating church, state
The Rev. Robin Tanner, minister of the Salisbury gathering of the Piedmont Unitarian Universalist Church, said commissioners should find a way to practice separation of church and state while “modeling religious freedom.”
“I would personally like to see a way in which commissioners could be responsive rather than reactive,” she said. “Make a space where citizens are empowered to have a moment of prayer in the broadest and most inclusive form.”
Tanner said she’s been struck by the fact that commissioners have ignored requests by local residents to halt the sectarian prayers.
“Public service requires one to be informed and in touch with one’s values, which faith can be a part of for many people,” she said. “But they should understand that service is done for the greater good.
“What I am most concerned with is commissioners, at the present moment, are acting out of their own personal interest and losing sight of the greater good.”
Tanner said the board’s decision to fight the lawsuit is an “irresponsible use of public money and public trust.”
“There are obviously more important matters that they should be taking up rather than arguing over a particular interpretation of the Constitution, which has already been established federally and in North Carolina,” she said.
Instead of saying a Christian prayer to kick off meetings, Tanner said board members could alter it to be more inclusive or switch to a moment of silence.
Dr. Neil Westbrook, senior pastor at Neel Road Baptist Church in Salisbury, pointed out that Jesus himself rarely prayed in public.
“However, we know that he prayed often. I think that is significant,” he said. “The debate over praying in Jesus’ name in public is misguided as long as its goal is to legalize prayer or make Christianity a state-endorsed religion.
“Jesus would have none of that.”
Westbrook said the current debate over prayer “will not be won in any courtroom.”
“It will be won in the hearts of believers,” he said. “The exponential growth of the church in China amidst increasing governmental persecution is proof that the Gospel is not dependent upon governmental approval or support. Christians in America, especially those with strong political ties, should take notice.
“This is a better framework for the prayer debate than the one we currently have.”
Personal opinions aside
Several local pastors declined to comment when a Post reporter contacted them about the issue.
“Frankly, when I speak, I speak for First Baptist,” said Dr. Kenneth Lance, senior pastor at First Baptist Church of Salisbury. “I’m not in a position to speak on an issue of a political matter.”
Barrie Kirby, pastor of Spencer Presbyterian Church, said her personal opinion “really does not matter.”
“Ultimately the courts will decide,” she said. “Based on the recent decision of the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals regarding Forsyth County’s use of sectarian prayer at public meetings, I think our Rowan County commissioners are ill-advised to continue praying sectarian prayer.
“Or, to use a saying based on a story from the book of Daniel, they are not reading the handwriting on the wall.”
Kirby said she is in favor of the policy board members recently adopted to keep prayer in county meetings if a federal judge were to issue an injunction to stop sectarian prayer.
The measure would allow an approved chaplain to give invocations at the start of commissioners meetings.
“I wish the commissioners would read the handwriting on the wall and adopt it as a working policy,” she said. “My hope would then be that the lawsuit would be dropped and taxpayers would be saved the agony and expense of the case going to trial.”
Copeland said the debate certainly brings to mind some important questions.
“What would happen if somebody else prayed in a different God’s name,” he said. “Would we accept that in Rowan County?
“We in America believe in freedom of religion, not freedom from religion.”
Copeland said he’d like to have more questions to discuss than “answers that divide.”
Taylor said he hopes the conversation continues.
“At least we’ve got people talking about it again,” he said. “It’s started a dialogue and opened people’s eyes.
“I like seeing people engaged.”
Contact reporter Sarah Campbell at 704-797-7683.