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Editorial: Free to pray or not pray

Considering Rowan County’s double-digit unemployment rate and the increasing number of families seeking help from the county’s Department of Social Services, you’d think the people in charge would want ó and appreciate ó all the exhortations for divine guidance and messages of support they can get, from whatever quarter.
And if we polled each of the five board members on that question, we’re confident they would concur. They are there to serve all of Rowan County, and the support of the county as a whole is important to the board’s effectiveness as it works to protect children from neglect and abuse, reduce the rate of teen pregnancies and improve the quality of life for seniors, among other crucial goals. They wouldn’t want to exclude any particular group from their constituency or disavow anyone’s words of support or encouragement, particularly on religious grounds.
While that may always have been the board’s guiding principle, it gained some symbolic affirmation Tuesday night when it narrowly approved a policy making it clear that board members are free to pray as they choose during the opening invocation ó or not pray aloud at all but simply call for moment of silence. As with practically any matter pertaining to religion in the public square, the policy statement didn’t pass without some healthy debate and dissent. Board members Jim Sides and Carl Ford opposed the motion, stating that as Christians they saw no problem with opening every meeting with a Christian prayer. Sides noted that most board meetings are sparsely attended, and in many cases, the only ones witnessing the prayer are members of the board itself and a reporter.
However, as board member John Blair pointed out in suggesting this change, the key consideration here isn’t the size of the audience that happens to hear a particular prayer. It’s the acknowledgment that board members aren’t all cut from the same religious cloth. And as board members, their role isn’t to bear witness to a particular religion but to represent a community that includes an increasingly diverse range of beliefs. “We serve Christians and Jews and Indians and Asians and anyone who comes through the door,” Blair noted. In spirit as well as practice, that door should be equally open to all, regardless of one’s system of religious belief ó or non-belief.
In reality, this policy will probably cause hardly a ripple of change. Those who wish to offer a Christian prayer to open board meetings can continue doing so. Others who want to use a different kind of prayer or moment of silence and reflection should feel comfortable exercising that choice as well. In the end, it’s not the deity invoked but the decisions taken that are the best measure of the board’s devotion to its fellow citizens. And in carrying out that commitment, they should welcome all the prayers they can get.

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