Commissioners to vote on prayer lawsuit Monday

Published 12:10 am Thursday, May 28, 2015

By Josh Bergeron

Rowan County Commissioners did not come to a consensus on how to proceed in its prayer lawsuit following a three-hour closed session on Wednesday, and will publicly vote on the issue during its upcoming Monday meeting, said Chairman Greg Edds.

The commissioners met Wednesday in a called meeting consisting almost entirely of a closed session. The only open portions of the meeting were an opening invocation, approval of the agenda and motion to adjourn. Edds said each commissioner would speak briefly Monday about the reasoning for his or her vote, Edds said.

“We’ll vote on one of three things — to either move forward with an appeal, file a motion of appeal that would allow us to deliberate it more, or drop the appeal and say we’re done,” he said after the closed session meeting.

During the closed session, commissioners did not extensively discuss personal opinions, Edds said. Instead, commissioners listened to potential options to proceed in a case where prayer practices from 2007 to 2013 have been ruled unconstitutional.

Attorney’s from The Gibbs Firm, which is representing Rowan County at no cost, did not attend the meeting. Commissioners spoke to The Gibbs Firm by using a phone placed in the center of commissioners. Briefly, discussion during the closed session meeting was loud enough to be heard from outside of the meeting room. At one point, Commissioner Craig Pierce could be hearing saying he wasn’t told when running for county commissioner that he wouldn’t be allowed to pray during meetings.

Edds said Monday’s meeting, scheduled for 3 p.m., would truly be an open discussion of each commissioners’ opinion.

“I encouraged each of the commissioners to speak with friends, clergy and search their heart to decide what’s right for them,” he said. “There will be a totally open discussion on Monday by each commissioner, whether they are for it or against it.”

When asked, Edds wouldn’t say whether he planned to vote for or against an appeal. Vice Chairman Jim Greene said he has decided on how he would vote. However, Greene wouldn’t say whether he planned to vote for or against the appeal.

To date, Rowan County hasn’t incurred large costs from the lasuit. The only associated costs so far are legal fees paid to County Attorney Jay Dees, which were less than $5,000 when a federal judge ruled commissioners’ prayer practices unconstitutional.

Greene said his vote will be based on more than budget figures.

“I think this is too big of an issue to make it strictly on a cost basis,” he said. “We are talking about religious views and personal rights.”

Commissioners Craig Pierce and Mike Caskey have previously said they would support an appeal.

Rowan County’s prayer practices from 2007 to 2013 were declared unconstitutional on May 4 in North Carolina’s Middle District Court. Among the issues Federal Judge James Beaty cited was the practice of commissioners exclusively providing the opening invocation and asking attendees to stand and pray without offering an option to leave.

Since the decision, commissioners implemented an alternate prayer policy that allows sheriff’s office chaplain Michael Taylor to provide the invocation. Taylor was listed as the first appointed chaplain in a 2013 resolution that passed shortly after the lawsuit’s filing.

Taylor’s two prayers to date have been nearly identical to those previously offered by commissioners. In his two prayers, Taylor has largely avoided specifically Christian words. Taylor offered the opening prayer for Wednesday’s meeting before commissioners went into the lengthy closed session. He prayed for commissioners to make the right decisions, f0r emergency personnel and soldiers.

“Lord, we come to you tonight and ask for your guidance tonight Lord Jesus,” Taylor said. “In Christ’s name we pray.”

Taylor is also listed as providing the opening invocation for commissioners’ upcoming Monday meeting.

Contact reporter Josh Bergeron at 704-797-4246.