Poll: Most don't object to sectarian prayer

Published 12:00 am Friday, March 23, 2012

A poll commissioned by a conservative Raleigh think tank found that nearly four out of five North Carolina voters don’t object to prayers referring to Jesus being said to open meetings of a public body.
The poll comes as the Rowan County Board of Commissioners is under pressure from the American Civil Liberties Union to stop opening meetings with Christian prayer.
“It appears the people of North Carolina are much more tolerant than the ACLU when it comes to religious speech in the public square,” Francis De Luca, president of the Civitas Institute, said in a press release. “They don’t feel threatened or intimidated by words alone.”
After the U.S. Supreme Court declined in January to review a court decision that found Forsyth County’s prayer policy unconstitutional because it effectively endorsed Christianity, the ACLU of North Carolina sent letters to about two dozen government bodies across the state asking them to stop opening meetings with sectarian prayer.
North Carolina ACLU officials said they’d gotten more complaints about Rowan — where county commissioners give the opening invocations — than any other government body in the state and asked for a response by March 5.
Since then, Rowan commissioners have met three times. Board Chairman Chad Mitchell and Commissioner Jon Barber invoked Jesus’ name in their prayers, while Commissioner Raymond Coltrain, who gave the most recent invocation, avoided the language.
Hundreds attended the meetings, most of them calling on commissioners to continue opening with Christian prayer.
Responding to a request for comment Friday from the Post, Mike Meno, communications manager for the ACLU of North Carolina, did not address the poll results but wrote in an email, “The law is clear that sectarian prayers at a government meeting violate every American’s constitutional right to a government that remains neutral on matters of religion.”
“Real tolerance means the government must respect and welcome people of all beliefs equally, not give special treatment to one preferred religious group,” Meno wrote. “Our office has received complaints from religious minorities all across North Carolina who feel alienated when their government endorses one religion over others.”
Several Rowan commissioners have argued their invocations are constitutional because they deliver the prayers themselves. In Forsyth County, members of the local clergy were invited to pray at commissioners’ meetings.
“It might also be that North Carolinians respect elected officials’ own right to speak freely,” De Luca said. “In any event, whatever happens in this case, a strong majority of the people here accept mentions of Jesus at invocations to start governmental meetings.”
Meno, in his email, wrote that, “Private individuals have an absolute right to pray however they want, but elected officials acting in a government capacity have a duty — and a constitutional obligation — to respect the beliefs of all citizens equally by not taking sides on matters of religion.”
The poll included 600 likely 2012 general election voters in North Carolina was conducted Feb. 27-28 by National Research Inc. of Holmdel, N.J. People interviewed had to have voted in at least one of the past three general elections or be newly registered to vote since Nov. 2, 2010.
Here’s the full text of the question and the poll results:
Do you object to a member of an elected body or a citizen offering an opening prayer ending with the words, “In Jesus or Christ’s name” at a meeting of a government body?
• Yes, 19 percent
• No, 79 percent
• Don’t know or refused to answer, 2 percent