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Commissioners surprised by Obama’s support for prayer

SALISBURY — Two Rowan County commissioners said they’re surprised the Obama administration has come out in support of prayer at government meetings, but the endorsement won’t change anything locally for now.
The American Civil Liberties Union is suing Rowan County on behalf of three residents because commissioners begin their meetings with sectarian prayer.
In a separate case, President Obama’s Justice Department and congressional lawmakers — nearly all Republicans — filed legal briefs late last week asking the U.S. Supreme Court to rule in favor of prayer at government meetings.
The Supreme Court has agreed to hear a case similar to Rowan’s involving the town of Greece, N.Y., where leaders invited a local minister to deliver an opening prayer at the council’s monthly meeting.
Last year, a federal appeals court ruled the town had violated the First Amendment’s ban on an establishment of religion. The Supreme Court agreed to hear the town’s appeal.
Barber said despite the surprising alliance between the Obama administration and congressional Republicans in the New York case, Rowan will continue to comply with a federal injunction prohibiting invocations at commissioners’ meetings until the Supreme Court issues a ruling.
Commissioners did not pray in Jesus’ name on Aug. 5 during their first meeting since the injunction was handed down.
“We will continue to do as we did,” Barber said. “There will be no change.”
Barber said the commissioners don’t want to do anything that would jeopardize the case going before the Supreme Court.
“We don’t want any actions by our board to cause any issues or concern to the federal judge that issued the injunction,” he said. “The best thing that we can do is follow the disclaimer that we read and let this issue be decided by the Supreme Court.”
During their meeting, the commissioners said they disagree with the injunction but will comply with it. They recessed the meeting and gathered for three minutes behind closed doors to pray.
Both Barber and county commission Vice Chairman Craig Pierce said they are skeptical about the Obama administration’s sincerity regarding prayer at government meetings.
But Pierce said he will take the endorsement, regardless of motive.
“If Obama wants to give the green light to it, great, for whatever reason,” Pierce said. “It’s time that this issue is put to rest.”
The administration is feigning support for legislative prayer to woo Hispanic voters, Pierce said.
“This is a political maneuver for the Democratic party to try to secure votes from the Hispanic population, which is very religious,” he said. “But I’m glad they are coming out in support, regardless of their reasoning.”
Pierce said he believes the Obama administration could sway the Supreme Court, which includes two justices appointed by the president.
“He’s sending them a signal that … when the case comes before them, that they should proceed in this manner,” Pierce said.
Pierce said prayer from any faith is welcome at Rowan County Board of Commissioners meetings, not only Christian prayer. Rowan just happens to have five Christian commissioners, he said.
Barber said he suspects the Obama administration, as well as Republican lawmakers, are playing politics with prayer and bending to pressure from constituents.
“I hope they are sincere when they make those comments and not just engaging in political posturing based on polls,” he said.
Support for legislative prayer crosses all party lines and all ethnic groups, Barber said.
While the commissioners and their supporters await a ruling, the ACLU said the case before the Supreme Court is different from the case against Rowan County.
The Supreme Court will hear a case involving clergy delivering prayers at governmental meetings. The Rowan case involves elected officials themselves delivering prayers.  
Ninety-seven percent of the prayers delivered by Rowan commissioners in the past five years were specific to Christianity, according to ACLU of North Carolina Legal Director Chris Brook.
“Regardless of the outcome in the case before the Supreme Court, we are confident no court will permit the Rowan County commissioners to return to its past practice, which made many residents feel unwelcome and excluded from participating in their local government,” Brook said.
In the New York case, the Obama administration told the Supreme Court that Greece’s practice should not be considered an endorsement of religion.
Opening the town council’s meetings with Christian prayer “does not amount to an unconstitutional establishment of religion merely because most prayer-givers are Christian and many or most of their prayers contain sectarian references,” wrote U.S. Solicitor Gen. Donald Verrilli Jr.
He argued that the court in 1983 upheld opening prayers in state legislatures. If local councils may have religious invocations, the law should not require them to “closely police the content of prayers,” he wrote.

Contact reporter Emily Ford at 704-797-4264.

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