ACLU asks commissioners to stop opening meetings with prayer
SALISBURY — The ACLU asked Rowan County Commissioners this week to stop opening their meetings with religion-specific prayers to comply with a recent court ruling.
Most of the commissioners say they think the board should continue the prayers, even though that could result in a lawsuit from the civil rights organization.
Katy Parker, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of North Carolina, sent a letter to Rowan County commissioners and the county attorney on Wednesday.
Over the past few years, the letter says, the ACLU has been contacted by “various citizens from Rowan County” expressing concern about opening board meetings with prayer.
“According to the complaints, a significant majority of these legislative prayers are explicitly sectarian and favor only one religion, Christianity,” Parker wrote. “Indeed, you may be interested to know that we have received more complaints about sectarian legislative prayer by the Rowan County Board of Commissioners than any other local government in North Carolina in the past several years.”
Last month, the U.S. Supreme Court chose to let stand a lower court’s ruling that bans sectarian prayer at the opening of Forsyth County Commissioners meetings.
The 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals found that Forsyth County’s prayer policy endorses Christianity. The policy is neutral in itself, the court said, but in practice the large majority of the prayers were Christian.
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Before sending the letter, Parker called County Attorney Jay Dees to let him know about the complaints and tell him commissioners are acting unconstitutionally.
Dees, who has periodically updated the board on this issue, emailed commissioners Monday morning to ask for their feedback and direction.
“I have appreciated our board’s general stance on this issue over the past several years I have represented the County,” Dees wrote. “But, the primary legal concern now is that our (board) takes an oath to uphold the Constitution and laws of the United States and our state.”
He said the board’s practice of opening meetings with sectarian prayer conflicts with federal and state law as interpreted by the 4th Circuit Court.
Commissioner Jim Sides called the situation “ridiculous” in an email he sent Monday to the other commissioners and Dees.
“I will continue to pray in JESUS name,” Sides wrote. “Chairman (Chad) Mitchell, I volunteer to be the first to go to jail for this cause… and if you will go my bail in time for the next meeting, I will go again!”
According to Dees, he could get the chance to make good on that offer. The ACLU could file a lawsuit to keep the county from using sectarian prayer in public meetings.
If a judge agreed and issued an order, anyone who violated that order could be found in contempt.
“Typically, there’s a fine to induce compliance, and another option certainly might include jail time,” Dees said in a phone interview Tuesday.
Dees said this is the first formal complaint the county has received, to his knowledge, about prayer at its board meetings.
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In a phone interview Tuesday, Parker said the ACLU has been waiting to see the outcome of the Forsyth County case. Now, the group is contacting those governments about which it has received complaints — about 25 cities and counties in total.
She didn’t specify how many people raised concerns about the Rowan County board, but she said the most recent complaint was received last month.
“We’ve heard from religious minorities in Rowan County who have been to these meetings,” Parker said. “They say, ‘I feel like I should be able to go to government meetings without my government taking sides on religion.’ The Rowan County Board of Commissioners is a board for the entire county, not just the religious majority.”
In the letter, Parker recommended that the county adopt a policy that stops the board from opening meetings with sectarian prayer. She said the board can still open its meetings with prayer under current law, as long as it isn’t specific to a particular religion or denomination.
The letter asks that commissioners inform the ACLU of their “proposed course of action” by March 5.
Parker said any legal action would be several steps away, and she hopes that commissioners will change their policy.
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Mitchell said he’s not sure what the board will decide to do, but he hopes commissioners will continue to open in prayer however they each see fit.
Part of the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution prohibits the government from “respecting an establishment of religion.” Mitchell said he disagrees with how some courts interpret that.
“To say that opening with prayer is establishing a religion for everybody in the county, I just don’t find that to be the case,” he said.
Rowan County board members are asked to pray on a rotating basis, and each board member prays however he or she wants, said Vice Chairman Carl Ford.
“All five commissioners have prayed in Jesus’ name,” Ford said. “If somebody has a problem with me praying in the name of Jesus, would they have a problem with me praying to Mohammed and Buddha?”
In emails sent to the Post on Tuesday and Wednesday, Commissioner Jon Barber said prayer for elected officials and governments is “very important.”
“I will continue to follow Jesus’ example,” Barber said. “God knows what’s in my heart.”
Barber said Dees should inform the public of the county’s “legal position” at the board’s next meeting Monday.
Commissioner Raymond Coltrain voiced a different opinion on the issue than the rest of the board.
“We’ve certainly got to address it and adhere to the law, I guess,” he said. “There are more ways than one to convey our feelings and meaning.”
Coltrain said beginning the meetings with prayer is important to him, but he doesn’t think Jesus will mind if he prays in “my Lord and Savior’s name.”
“No matter what kind of show or verbiage we put on here, he knows what’s in the heart, and that’s what counts,” Coltrain said. “We’re not supposed to be doing it for pomp and circumstance, are we?”
Contact reporter Karissa Minn at 704-797-4222.
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