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Elizabeth Cook: Was the prayer case necessary?

Raymond Coltrain believes a different decision — and simple courtesy — by the Rowan County Board of Commissioners a few years ago could have saved the county a lot of trouble.

It was February 2012 when the board received a letter from the American Civil Liberties Union’s state legal director, Katy Parker. She said complaints from people in Rowan County prompted her to ask commissioners to stop beginning their public meetings with religion-specific prayer. Non-Christians attending the meetings were uncomfortable with the prayers coming from government officials.

“Indeed,” Parker wrote, “you may be interested to know that we have received more complaints about sectarian legislative prayer by the Rowan County Board of Commissioners than any other local government in North Carolina in the past several years.”   

Coltrain, then a commissioner, was the only board member not to see this as an attack on his beliefs.

The majority of commissioners said no one could tell them not to pray in Jesus’ name — or “in JESUS name,” as Commissioner Jim Sides emphasized in an email at the time. He volunteered to be the first to go to jail for the cause.  Others serving at the time were Chairman Chad Mitchell, Vice Chairman Carl Ford  and Commissioner Jon Barber.

Coltrain advocated flexibility. Prayer was important to him, he said, but he didn’t think Jesus would mind if he prayed in “my Lord and Savior’s name.”

Coltrain explained his stance to a reporter.

“No matter what kind of show or verbiage we put on here, He knows what’s in the heart, and that’s what counts,” he said. “We’re not supposed to be doing it for pomp and circumstance, are we?”

Commissioners decided to defy the ACLU, which filed suit against the county in 2013 on behalf of three county residents — Nan Lund, Liesa Montag-Siegel and Robert Voelker.

For four years, the case has been making its way through federal courts — the Middle District first, then the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals — with the full 4th Circuit Court ruling commissioners’ prayer practice unconstitutional.

Commissioners are supposed to decide Monday whether to appeal that ruling, but the National Center for Life and Liberty has already sent out a plea for prayers “as we provide pro bono representation of Rowan County all the way to the Supreme Court.” The mailing included a return envelope for financial contributions.

Even though this fight is funded by donations, you have to wonder, how many lawyers and how much money have been involved in this case?   

Coltrain lost his bid for a second term in 2014. Retired from the N.C. Department of Agriculture, he has been happy focusing on sustainable agriculture and working with area farmers.

But he took off from the fields early one day to sound off after the 4th Circuit ruled against Rowan County in July. He feels more strongly than ever that commissioners should have settled the issue themselves in 2012 instead of getting involved in a court case.

He says commissioners should have prayed “in your holy name” or simply held a moment of silence.

They could have called the agenda item an “invocation” instead of a “prayer,” he says, and shown respect for all faiths by keeping it neutral.

“Whether you like it or not, when you’re in that role, you’ve got to be considerate, or you should be,” Coltrain says.

As commissioners weighed the issue five years ago, crowds of Christians filled the commissioners’ meeting room and the sidewalk outside to lobby for Christian prayer.

It was an emotional scene that turned off some people, including some Christians. Coltrain says the whole process spurred negative responses — as well as negative court rulings — to the principles commissioners were trying to sustain.

Does he believe commissioners should appeal their case to the U.S. Supreme Court now? No, he says without hesitation.

“Why keep aggravating the sore?”

Elizabeth Cook is editor of the Salisbury Post.

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