Federal magistrate: No prayer at meeting
By Steve Herring
Published in News on November 10, 2009 1:46 PM
Wayne County commissioners this morning said they disagree with a recommendation that the use of prayer to open a board of commissioners meeting in North Carolina violates the First Amendment.
The board members said they plan to continue what has been a tradition, at least for now, of commissioners rotating the duty of opening their meetings with prayer.
And should it become law, then silent prayer could be an option, they said.
Magistrate Trevor Sharp issued the recommendation on the use of sectarian invocations to open the Forsyth County Board of Commissioners meetings.
While the recommendation is for Forsyth County, it would have statewide implications.
The ruling noted that the prayers frequently referred to Jesus or Jesus Christ, and said that such prayers "display a preference for Christianity over other religions by the government."
Sharp's recommendation will now go before a federal district judge, who will make a final ruling.
"If I have my choice I am going to pray on Tuesday," said Jack Best, vice chairman of the Wayne County Board of Commissioners. "I do not agree with that ruling. I am not in favor of it. They took prayer out of school and look at what happened. I would be totally opposed to it."
Best also disagrees that the prayers are a slap at other religions.
"I am not opposed to any religions," he said.
Chairman Bud Gray said he was not surprised by the magistrate's recommendation.
"I guess it is the times that we live in," he said. "They took prayer out of school. I have been looking for it. It was just a matter of time. I can't say that I agree with it."
Gray said he plans to continue to open the meetings with prayer.
"If it is made law, then we will have to adhere to it, but until then we will continue like we are," he said.
"Lord have mercy," Commissioner John Bell said. "We have troops fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq to preserve our way of life and then we have a judge trying to do that. I have been in combat and we prayed in combat and we did not do it silently we did it openly."
However, Bell said that commissioners could not break the law.
He said that commissioners might consider doing silent prayer until a ruling of some sort is finalized.
Commissioner Steve Keen said the prayers are not an attempt to favor one religion over another.
"My first thought is that all we in Wayne County are doing is asking for divine intervention," he said. "I think that is what we are doing."
The commissioners are capable of only doing so much and hence the need to ask for "wisdom and strength" to carry out the business of the county and its citizens, he said.
Religion in local government is not a new issue, Commissioner Sandra McCullen said.
Mrs. McCullen said commissioners would welcome people of other religions to open their meetings.
Like, Best, Commissioner J.D. Evans said he had been anticipating such action. Evans said the court should not forget that the religious principles on which the country was built.
"I think it is the wrong direction for the country," he said. "It bothers me. If they do it, I can still do whatever I want in a silent prayer. They can't stop me from that."
Commissioner Andy Anderson is out of the country and could not be reached for comment.
The Duplin County Board of Commissioners also opens meetings with a prayer, often led by one of the commissioners.
County attorney Wendy Sivori said she had not heard of anyone challenging the commissioners for praying before a meeting, but added that she could not comment on the issue without reading the decision in the case itself.
The Duplin commissioners will continue to pray before meetings, Chairman Cary Turner said.
"Quite frankly, I'm surprised someone hasn't challenged us," he said. "But until they do, we're still going to have our prayers."
And if someone does challenge the commissioners on the issue, Turner said he would "personally excuse myself out into the center of the street" to pray before meetings, and invite others to join him if they would like.
"Christians, they seem to be getting pushed to the side," he said. "That's where I stand."