Welcome all with prayer
A moment of silence, please, for the Rowan County Board of Commissioners. Pray, if you like.
Commissioners face an important decision in the coming weeks. Three citizens have filed suit along with the ACLU, challenging commissioners’ practice of opening official public meetings with sectarian — Christian — prayer. A federal appeals court ruling regarding prayers at Forsyth County commissioners’ meetings points the direction in which this suit likely will go. “Sectarian prayers must not serve as the gateway to citizen participation in the affairs of local government,” a judge wrote in the majority opinion. “To have them do so runs afoul of the promise of public neutrality among faiths that resides at the heart of the First Amendment’s religion clauses.”
Before commissioners decide whether to fight the suit, they should weigh their responsibilities as government leaders. As George Washington once said — and the court opinion quoted — “Religious controversies are always productive of more acrimony and irreconcilable hatreds than those which spring from any other cause.” Commissioners should take a stance that pulls the community together and respects the court ruling.
As eager as commissoners may be to stand up for their personal faith, they govern a diverse county of many beliefs and creeds. Commissioners have freedom to pray however they like in every facet of their lives but one: When they call for a prayer at a public meeting, they should pray in a way that includes all, not just their fellow churchgoers. Courts have ruled that legislative prayers are constitutional, but such prayers are supposed to solemnize occasions and bring people together, not drive them apart.
The Forsyth decision in no way threatens citizens’ right to pray, and neither does the lawsuit. But fighting the suit would threaten the county’s desire to be seen as a community that welcomes all. Some have said people who feel excluded by commissioners’ Christian prayers should stay away from the meetings — a statement of exclusion that proves the lawsuit’s point. If only Christians are welcome, how are others to participate in their government?
Commission Chairman Jim Sides told a Raleigh gathering last week that he had instructed Sheriff Kevin Auten to abide by the law if anyone asked for the public record of concealed-weapon permit holders, information a few sheriffs have withheld because they disagree with the law. Should Sheriff Auten or anyone else have to instruct Sides to obey the law regarding establishment of religion? They should not. Nor should the county get in a protracted legal battle to do the same.
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