Commissioners implement alternate policy for prayers

Published 12:15 am Sunday, May 17, 2015

By Josh Bergeron

Rowan County commissioners will turn to a local pastor for opening invocations at meetings as they ponder the next step in a lawsuit relating to past prayer practices.

Pastor Michael Taylor, who serves as the Sheriff’s Office chaplain, is scheduled to deliver Monday’s opening invocation during the commissioners’ regularly scheduled meeting. The meeting will be at 6 p.m. in the county’s administration building on West Innes Street.

Taylor’s selection to deliver opening invocations dates back to April 15, 2013, when county commissioners unanimously adopted an alternate policy for opening prayers. The policy, approved when Jim Sides was the chairman of the commissioners, states its effective date as “immediately upon notification from the county attorney to the clerk to the board that an injunction has been issued by the federal court.”

Federal Judge James Beaty, a judge for North Carolina’s Middle District, on May 4 declared commissioners’ prayer practices from 2007 to 2013 unconstitutional and included a permanent injunction. In his decision, Beaty mentioned commissioners’ practice of asking attendees to stand before prayers without mentioning options to leave the room and took issue with the practice of prayers exclusively being given by commissioners.

Beaty cited the U.S. Supreme Court case Town of Greece vs. Galloway, in which justices decided in 2014 the Town of Greece could permit chaplains to open each meeting with a prayer.

With the permanent injunction, Dees said the alternate procedure would remain in effect until commissioners decide on an appeal.

Commissioners aren’t scheduled to decide on an appeal during Monday’s meeting. Instead, Chairman Greg Edds said commissioners would publicly discuss whether to appeal Beaty’s ruling during the regularly scheduled June 1 meeting. County commissioners will have a called meeting between Monday’s meeting and June 1, Edds said.

“That will be a closed session meeting to allow the attorney to bring the new commissioners up to speed on the history of the case and the options available to the county,” he said in a text message.

Only two of Rowan County’s five commissioners — Mike Caskey and Craig Pierce — have publicly said they’d support an appeal.

Support for the commissioners’ prayer practices has come from state Rep. Carl Ford, R-76. Ford served as chairman during a portion of the period pertaining to the lawsuit and is specifically mentioned in Beaty’s decision.

Emails from Ford to commissioners include a picture of a crowd of people who attended a commissioners meeting in 2013 to express support for commissioners’ prayer practices. In another email, Ford wrote that he spoke to members of the legislature’s Republican Caucus about the lawsuit. The caucus prayed for commissioners, Beaty and all involved parties at the end of a recent meeting, Ford said.

“The ACLU does this to make money,” Ford said when asked about his support for commissioners. “I think it comes down to the commissions’ First Amendment right. No commissioner or member of the public has ever been made to pray or made to pray in a certain way.”

Regardless of what decision commissioners make, Ford said, members of the public will likely be upset.

“I don’t care what decision you make because someone is going to be mad at you,” Ford said. “It is a representative form of government. You go and represent the people as best you can.”

Ford said church and religious groups have offered to pay any legal fees that might arise if commissioners choose not to appeal the ruling or lose an appeal.

Invoices ending May 2013 for legal work performed by Dees total $3,712.50. When asked last week, Dees said the total amount paid to him as a result of the suit wouldn’t be more than $5,000. Beaty’s ruling ordered plaintiffs Nan Lund, Liesa Montag-Siegel and Robert Voelker be paid $1 in damages. The plaintiffs, represented by the American Civil Liberties Union, can also pursue attorney’s fees and costs.

The Gibbs Firm — representing Rowan County in the prayer lawsuit — isn’t charging the county for representation.

Contact reporter Josh Bergeron at 704-797-4246