With injunction in place, commissioners go behind closed doors to pray

Published 12:00 am Monday, August 5, 2013

To avoid violating a court order barring them from saying sectarian prayers to start their meeting, Rowan County commissioners went behind closed doors to pray today.
Commissioners Chairman Jim Sides started the meeting by reading a statement about the injunction issued last month by a federal judge in an ongoing lawsuit over prayer at board meetings.
“We believe this injunction is unconstitutional,” Sides said. He said if board members prayed in the open meeting, they would use language that does not mention Jesus.
Commissioner Jon Barber, who was scheduled to deliver the invocation today, moved that the board recess to pray. They left the meeting chambers for about three minutes.
While the commissioners were gone, someone attending the meeting stood and prayed, ending his prayer “in Jesus’ name.” The commissioners came back into the meeting room before that prayer ended.
The American Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit in March aiming to stop the overwhelmingly Christian prayers that open Rowan Board of Commissioners meetings.
Three local residents are named as plaintiffs in that lawsuit. Nancy Lund, Liesa Montag-Siegel and Robert Voelker say the prayers violate their constitutional rights and make them feel marginalized at meetings.
On July 23, U.S. District Court Judge James A. Beaty Jr. granted their request for an injunction and ordered the county to cease the prayers that favor one religion while the lawsuit makes its way through the courts.
Barber told the Post last week that, out of respect for his Christian values, “I will always pray in the name of Jesus.”
And he said then that he was not worried about consequences.
“I have already won this war through my salvation in Jesus Christ,” he said. “God will lead me through this persecution and I will be His instrument.”
In a statement today, Barber said that “in order to not jeopardize the goal of this Board of Commissioners that this issue be properly vetted by the U.S. Supreme Court, and to not put my fellow commissioners, their livelihoods, and their families at risk for my actions, I will ask our chairman for a brief recess while this board adjourns to another room.”
With the possibility of an injunction looming, the board adopted a policy in April that would have a chaplain deliver an invocation instead of commissioners.
The policy asks that the chaplain deliver a prayer that avoids having “sectarian references become too frequent and no invocation should proselytize or advance any faith or disparage the religious faith or non-religious views of others.”
Members of the commission would not be able to give the invocation, nor would they be involved in reviewing the invocation’s content, the policy said.
But last week, commissioners Vice Chairman Craig Pierce said commissioners can also choose to deliver their own non-sectarian prayer.