Salisbury City Council will now open meetings with moment of silence instead of prayer

Published 12:10 am Wednesday, January 3, 2018

SALISBURY — Whether public meetings can or should open with a prayer has been a point of contention in recent years, particularly in Rowan County.

The Rowan County Board of Commissioners voted last September to appeal a lawsuit on the matter to the Supreme Court.

At Tuesday night’s Salisbury City Council meeting — the first full meeting with a newly elected council — Mayor Al Heggins brought the subject up by proposing that the council’s opening prayer be replaced with a moment of silence.

Two other council members agreed with her and voted to approve that policy.

“This is in the effort to keep this public space as welcoming and as inclusive as possible,” Heggins said of the idea, which she asked to have put on the agenda for discussion.

Heggins said that while she knows that many people in the community — including herself — are Christian, not everyone is.

“We also have many Muslims. We have Hindus. We have some people who don’t practice a religion at all. And since this is a public space, I’m hoping that we will make this a space that’s welcoming to all religious practitioners and nonreligious practitioners,” Heggins said.

Mayor Pro Tem David Post — who is Jewish — almost immediately said, “I’m all in.”

Councilman Brian Miller pointed out that, with former councils, each member was given a rotating ability to choose a prayer appropriate to his or her faith.

He said the only reason he has been doing that for the past two years is that he was the only one who wanted to.

“If that still remains to be the case, then I’ll be happy to do that way still. But I think that our faith is a very foundational part of who we are,” Miller said.

He said that when he has given prayers at meetings, he has tried to make them nonsectarian. He said he simply asks for favor, blessing and wisdom.

“Regardless of what faith you have — or if you don’t have faith at all — those are things we can all use and benefit from,” Miller said.

Post said he has always admired Miller’s prayers.

“But on the other hand, I don’t think the way that we’ve done it is — and, you know, Jewish term — totally kosher,” Post said.

Councilwoman Karen Alexander said she agrees with Miller.

“I thought about it a lot. And I think that the way that we had two years ago, we changed it to where each council member could either elect to pray or not to pray, and even to not have a moment of silence,” Alexander said.

Councilwoman Tamara Sheffield said she defends people’s right to pray, have a moment of silence or “just to be still and calm.”

“I think that a moment of silence is more appropriate because I might choose my moment of silence for prayer, sometimes, or other things possibly. Or to think or ponder the decisions that we have to make,” Sheffield said.

Heggins said that while she is interested in the comfort of council members, she is more concerned with the comfort of residents.

Christianity is overwhelmingly represented on the council, she said. All members but Post are Christian.

That would mean that under the rotating prayer system that Miller and Alexander mentioned, the prayers that council members would choose would likely be overwhelmingly Christian, she said.

“What I want us to avoid is wrapping ourselves inadvertently — I don’t think there’s anything that’s malicious — but inadvertently into a single faith,” Heggins said.

Miller and Alexander said that no matter how the vote went, they would still pray before every meeting.

The motion passed 3-2, with Heggins, Sheffield and Post voting in favor and Miller and Alexander voting against it.

Other items on the agenda included:

• The council honored retired Finance Director Teresa Harris and retired Assistant City Manager John Sofley.

Harris said it makes her “happy to know that I helped make Salisbury a better place.”

Sofley said he is “appreciative of that opportunity that was afforded to me.”

• Heggins administered the oath of office to the city’s new finance director, Shannon Moore.

• The council discussed whether to change its parliamentary rules from Robert’s Rules of Order to another method.

The council agreed to look into whether switching from Robert’s Rules might help make meetings smoother and more efficient.

Miller recommended that a subcommittee be put together to look into other potential rules.

• The council agreed to issue a pool hall permit to The Shark Tank Bar & Billiards.

Police Chief Jerry Stokes said the Police Department had done an investigation — as it must do for any establishment seeking a pool hall permit — and found no problems in the past five years at the location.

The location — 612 S. Main St. — used to be Break-n-Run Bar & Billiards.

Contact reporter Jessica Coates at 704-797-4222.