SALISBURY — More than a thousand people arriving in buses, singing patriotic songs and hymns and holding homemade signs with phrases such as “Jesus Is My Lord” rallied for governmental prayer Monday evening before the Rowan County Board of Commissioners' meeting.
Return America, a Forsyth County-based group founded with the aim of “restoring our Judeo-Christian heritage,” organized the rally in front of the Rowan County Administration building at 130 W. Innes Street.
The rally — organizers put the crowd at 2,000 to 3,000 people — aimed at supporting Rowan County commissioners in continuing their practice of starting meetings with sectarian prayers.
Commissioner Mike Caskey opened Monday's meeting with a prayer ending, “I ask this is his name, who is above all other names.”
The singing of rally participants on the streets below was audible from the commissioners' meeting room.
Dr. Ron Baity, a pastor and president of Return America, spoke to the crowd before and after his comments to commissioners.
He told the board if the right to pray is lost in the public sector, “then the next place they're going to come for it is in our churches.”
Baity had more than 30 pastors gather with him on the old federal courthouse's steps before they entered the commissioners' chambers together.
A Salisbury resident of the Muslim faith at the meeting said she felt excluded by the commissioners' prayer practices.
Later outside, Baity told the large crowd that had stayed, “We sent a great message today for the cause of Jesus Christ. ... We need you to go back home and stay charged.”
Return America, he added, may ask them to return to Rowan County for more prayer rallies before November, when the U.S. Supreme Court is scheduled to have a hearing on prayer before governmental meetings.
David Gibbs III, lead attorney for Rowan County commissioners in a suit filed against them through the American Civil Liberties Union, told the crowd, “If you have prayer without Jesus, you just formed a non-Jesus religion.”
He said President Obama supports prayer in government, that Congress still opens meetings with prayers in Jesus' name, as does the N.C. Legislature.
“We need to recognize this is our tradition,” Gibbs said.
Baity said people attended the rally from the coast to the mountains. But most interviewed came from Rowan or nearby counties.
They assembled on both sides of East Innes Street as five lanes of traffic kept moving in between the throngs. Those on the Salisbury Post side participated in the singing, but hearing the speakers and prayers was difficult because of the traffic noise.
The Return America permit did not permit amplification.
People said they heard about the prayer rally through Return America notifications, pastors in the pulpit, Sunday School, church newsletters and on Christian radio stations.
“We're Christians, and we have the right to pray in Jesus' name,” said Cathy Cover, a Davie County resident and member of Morningstar Baptist Church in Cleveland.
State Rep. Carl Ford, R-Rowan, owner of a Christian radio station in southern Rowan County, said he had publicized the rally continuously for more than a week and was “wide open” with its promotion Monday.
A former county commissioner, Ford said he was encouraged by the turnout, especially given that many people were coming from work. Ford said he steadfastly stood behind the commissioners.
No commissioners spoke at the rally.
Tommy Henry, a member of Landis Baptist Church, said the “Lord put it on my heart to make a stand” and magnify his name.
Almost 30 members of Tabernacle Baptist Church in China Grove attended the rally. Members of its children's chorus sang the hymn, “We Will Stand Our Ground” several times.
Gwen Eagle's three sons — ages 10, 8 and 5 — were missing their first baseball games of the fall season Monday to attend the rally.
“This was more important,” Eagle said. “... We support their (commissioners') right to pray in the name of Jesus.”
About 45 people traveled to the rally in a tour bus from Caraway Baptist Church in Randolph County. “We're going to pray today,” the Rev. Jim Honeycutt said. “If they're not allowed to pray, we'll pray for them. I believe people want to pray and pray in Jesus' name.”
Barbara Maynor, a member of Caraway Baptist, said she came to Salisbury “cause we think we should be able to pray in Jesus' name in public or anywhere else.”
Honeycutt said Randleman High School has had a mild controversy recently over prayer before football games, but the parents and teams from both sides have answered that by reciting the Lord's Prayer before contests.
John Castor and Pheobie Castor, members of St. Matthew's Lutheran Church in eastern Rowan County, said they spread the word about the rally in Sunday School.
“We can't let three people in Rowan County tell us what to do,” John Castor said, referring to the three county residents on whose behalf the ACLU has filed its lawsuit.
Pheobie Castor said she attended the rally in support of the commissioners' being allowed to worship and pray as Christians and in Jesus' name. The country's freedom was founded on that principle, she said.
“This crowd today is sending a signal,” Baity said. “We want it the way it used to be. ... I think everybody is beginning to understand we ought to be able to pray in Jesus' name.”
Baity added, “This is a great day, a wonderful day, and let's praise the Lord for it.”
In other remarks to the crowd, Baity said, “We've just decided that we're going to draw a line in the sand.”
He said it was not a movable line because the country was formed on Judeo-Christian principles.
“Our fundamental right to pray with the name of Jesus started in the beginning,” Baity added.
Gibbs, the county's attorney in the suit, told people in the crowd they would be able to tell their children and grandchildren, “I stood up.”
Baity told them later when they finally stand in God's presence, “You will be glad you did.”
A couple from Enochville held a Christian flag at the rally, which they used as an interlude before getting married later in the evening.
Dean Wilhite and Shari Mann had secured their marriage license in Salisbury during the afternoon before the rally. They planned to be married at Wilhite's sister's house afterward.
“We had planned to come up here anyway,” Wilhite said, and the couple explained they had been talking about getting married for several months.
This just happened to be a good way to get started, they decided.