SALISBURY — To avoid violating a court order barring them from saying sectarian prayers to start their meeting, Rowan County commissioners went behind closed doors to pray Monday.
With nearly a full meeting audience, Commissioners Chairman Jim Sides began the 3 p.m. meeting by reading a statement about the injunction issued last month by a federal judge in an ongoing lawsuit over prayer at board meetings.
“We believe this injunction is unconstitutional and violates hundreds of years of religious liberty and free expression in America,” Sides read from the statement. “However, as constitutional officers of this County, while we disagree with this injunction, we have chosen to voluntarily comply with it while the United States Supreme Court hears a similar legislative prayer case. That Supreme Court decision will set the standard for legislative prayer for the entire nation. Our attorneys have filed an amicus brief in that case to vigorously defend our prayer practice.”
Commissioner Jon Barber, who was scheduled to deliver the invocation, followed Sides’ remarks by comparing his devotion to Christian prayer to that of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego — three Jews revered for their devotion to God in the Old Testament.
Fearing other commissioners could be punished for the prayer, Barber said, he motioned for the prayer to be moved to a back room during a 3-minute recess.
“In order to not jeopardize the goal of this board of commissioners, that this issue be properly vetted by the United States Supreme Court — and to not put my fellow Commissioners, their livelihoods, and their families at risk for my actions — I will ask our chairman for a brief recess while this board adjourns to another room,” Barber said.
While the commissioners were gone, Jason Josey, a Rowan County resident, stood and prayed, ending his prayer “in Jesus’ name.” The commissioners came back into the meeting room before that prayer ended.
After the meeting Josey said he didn’t plan to pray, but felt the urge to when commissioners left the room.
“I came out to give my support to the commissioners. I believe what they’re doing is right. I want to support them however I can,” Josey told the Post.
“If our government is going to tell them they can’t pray, I’m going to pray for them. The letter wasn’t to me — I’m not bound by the same letter that they received from the judge.”
The American Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit in March aiming to stop the overwhelmingly Christian prayers that open Rowan Board of Commissioners meetings.
Three local residents are named as plaintiffs in that lawsuit. Nancy Lund, Liesa Montag-Siegel and Robert Voelker say the prayers violate their constitutional rights and make them feel marginalized at meetings.
On July 23, U.S. District Court Judge James A. Beaty Jr. granted their request for an injunction and ordered the county to cease the prayers that favor one religion while the lawsuit makes its way through the courts.
Barber told the Post last week that, out of respect for his Christian values, “I will always pray in the name of Jesus.”
And he said then that he was not worried about consequences.
“I have already won this war through my salvation in Jesus Christ,” he said. “God will lead me through this persecution and I will be His instrument.”
In an email statement following the meeting, ACLU of North Carolina Legal Director Chris Brook called commissioners’ decision “encouraging.”
“It’s encouraging that the commissioners have decided to comply with the law,” Brook wrote. “We hope going forward they will ensure that any invocations used at meetings strive to be welcoming and inclusive to all Rowan County residents, regardless of their personal beliefs.”
With the possibility of an injunction looming, the board adopted a policy in April that would have a chaplain deliver an invocation instead of commissioners.
The policy asks that the chaplain deliver a prayer that avoids having “sectarian references become too frequent and no invocation should proselytize or advance any faith or disparage the religious faith or non-religious views of others.”
Members of the commission would not be able to give the invocation, nor would they be involved in reviewing the invocation’s content, the policy said.
But last week, commissioners Vice Chairman Craig Pierce said commissioners can also choose to deliver their own non-sectarian prayer.
Josey’s prayer preceded the public comment period, which was capped at 10 residents since commissioners were meeting with the Rowan-Salisbury School Board at 5 p.m.
The majority spoke in favor of Christian invocations at public meetings.
Rep. Carl Ford, a former county commissioner, was one of the 10 who spoke, lauding county leaders on their stand.
“This judge didn’t elect you. The ACLU didn’t elect you. We the people elected you,” Ford said. “If we don’t like what you’re doing we can go to the ballot box next year and change that. We appreciate what you’re doing and we appreciate your stand. Speaking for a lot of people, I’ve heard from a lot of state legislators, including today, that said their prayers are with you and wanted to know what they could do to help you. These are senators. These are state legislators.”
Ford ended his comments in prayer.
Local attorney Nancy Gaines was one of the only critics who spoke, telling commissioners she supports praying behind closed doors.
“It is time to pray,” Gaines said. “Quietly, privately.”