Commissioners answer ACLU with a prayer

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, March 6, 2012

By Karissa Minn
SALISBURY — Rowan County commissioners’ answer to the American Civil Liberties Union came Monday in the form of a prayer.
The ACLU of North Carolina has asked commissioners to stop opening meetings with religion-specific prayers, and it requested a response by Monday, the date of the board’s first March meeting.
The board never addressed the ACLU’s communication, but Commissioner Jon Barber’s invocation was decidedly not a general one.
Barber not only prayed in Jesus’ name and addressed “our Heavenly father,” but referenced “the salvation of Jesus Christ” and declared his name “as the only way to eternal life.”
Hundreds of people gathered at the county administration building Monday, overflowing the board room. They created a scene similar to the one at the last county meeting on Feb. 20, when Chairman Chad Mitchell also prayed in Jesus’ name.
As the sound of hymns floated upstairs from the lobby, 31 people spoke during the public comment period.
Once again, most of them supported the commissioners’ decision to continue sectarian prayer. But this time, five people spoke against it, adding to the one voice of opposition at the last meeting.
Two of them identified themselves as Christians — China Grove resident Karen Campbell and Salisbury resident Jim Spiceland.
“This country is not a Christian nation,” Spiceland said. “This country includes Muslims, Jews, Hindus and people of all faiths, and Jesus of Nazareth was a man of compassion and mercy.”
Campbell, of China Grove, said commissioners took an oath to serve the entire community, not just those with whom they agree.
“I can imagine that right now, you feel like that freedom of religion is in question, and your back is against the wall, and you have no choice but to fight,” Campbell said. “So how do you turn this possible fight into a win-win situation that will unify our community rather than divide it?”
She said individual rights are protected when religion is kept separate from government, and she suggested commissioners have a “time of solemn silence” or a private prayer before the public meeting instead.
Shakeisha Gray, a Salisbury resident and Unitarian Universalist, said she and others feel that commissioners’ actions are “not only unlawful and unjust but disrespectful and hurtful.”
“I am saddened by your blatant disregard for our Constitution and by your intolerant attitudes,” Gray said. A few people in the room responded to Gray’s words by booing.
In response, Chairman Chad Mitchell struck the gavel and said everyone has the right to come before the board and speak.
“If someone who disagrees with your position speaks, keep that to yourself, please,” he said.
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In 2011, the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals ended a five-year legal battle between Forsyth County and ACLU-backed plaintiffs, ruling that county commissioners’ practice of opening prayer there was unconstitutional because the prayers had been overwhelmingly Christian.
Last month, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear an appeal to that decision, letting stand the lower court’s ruling.
That prompted the ACLU to send letters to about 25 government bodies across North Carolina calling on them to stop opening their meetings with religion-specific prayers and adopt non-sectarian prayer policies.
Those letters were sent to governments against whom the civil liberties group had gotten prayer-related complaints, Katy Parker, an attorney for the ACLU in North Carolina, told the Post. She said Rowan commissioners had generated the most complaints.
Parker told the Post that the Rowan County Board of Commissioners was the only government body to ignore the request.
Four out of five Rowan County commissioners — all but Raymond Coltrain — have said they plan to continue praying the way they always have and believe the Rowan case is different than Forsyth’s because individual commissioners pray, not local clergy.
Mike Meno, communications manager for the ACLU of North Carolina, called Barber’s prayer “not only inappropriate but unconstitutional” for a meeting that is “supposed to be open and welcoming for citizens of all beliefs.”
While Parker, the ACLU attorney, previously told the Post that some of the people who lodged complaints against Rowan are willing to be named as plaintiffs in a lawsuit, Meno said Monday that it’s “hard to say” how the group will proceed.
“As long as (commissioners) continue to violate the law, they risk an unnecessary lawsuit, and then taxpayers become involved,” he said.
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At Monday’s meeting, Salisbury resident Pete Prunkl asked commissioners to “be reasonable” and begin meetings with a moment of silence.
“I am appalled that you would consider wasting government money and taxpayer dollars on a losing battle over public prayer,” Prunkl said. “I am disgusted that you would so willfully violate the law.”
He said he thinks many taxpayers would rather see money go to teachers, nurses or sheriff’s deputies than to the winning party’s lawyers.
Salisbury resident John Burke echoed that sentiment, saying, “I don’t want to get the bill for this.”
But a few of those speaking said they wouldn’t mind helping to pay for the board’s legal fight.
“I respect the gentleman who spoke earlier and said this was a waste of money, but I don’t believe so,” said Nathan Allen Kirkman, of Faith.
Many others thanked the commissioners for their stance, often reading from the Bible or sharing personal testimonies in the process.
Ricky Perry, a China Grove pastor, said he considers the ACLU’s actions an attack on Jesus Christ, Christianity and this country’s freedoms.
“People say they are for freedom and for Christianity, but the commissioners should have to hide in the back room to pray,” Perry said. “When somebody tells you how to pray, what could infringe on your rights more?”
He said he does believe America is a Christian nation and doesn’t know why people would try to deny that heritage.
One man said he was not speaking from a Christian perspective but still supports the commissioners’ stance.
China Grove resident William McCubbins, who identified himself as a Jewish man, said he isn’t offended by the prayers in Jesus’ name.
“I want you to know I do not feel excluded in any way, shape or form,” he said. “I come here often, and you guys are the most inclusive group of people I have ever met.”
Contact reporter Karissa Minn at 704-797-4222.
Facebook: Karissa.SalisburyPost