Prayer in Jesus name; one commissioner's defense | Politics
SALISBURY - The Rowan County Commission meetings have come under the scrutiny of the American Civil Liberties Union for opening its meetings with sectarian prayer.
The ACLU has asked the commission to stop praying in the name of Jesus, and has given the commission until March 5 to come up with a new course of action.
At the most recent commission meeting, Commission Chairman Chad Mitchell opened the meeting with a prayer in the name of Jesus, while hundreds of supporters sang hymns and prayed in and around the meeting room.
Katy Parker, Legal Director of the ACLU, told WBTV that the organization had received more complaints about the Rowan County Commission meeting prayers than any other in the state. When asked how many complaints, Parker said "four to five."
On Thursday WBTV received the following letter from Rowan County Commissioner Jon Barber. Barber will give the opening prayer at the next meeting on Monday, March 5:
At our 3:00 meeting next Monday, March 5th, it is my turn in the rotation to open our meeting with prayer. This is the same date that the ACLU asked our board how we planned to change our practice.
While there is no specific written policy that I am aware of, the practice of opening with an invocation has been ongoing for many years. That practice is to rotate the opening invocation between the commissioners that wish to participate. A commissioner is able to give whatever invocation that they deem appropriate and their participation, or the content of their invocation, is at the total discretion of the individual commissioner.
While there is no way to determine a court's possible ruling on our practice, there are some differences between the practices of Rowan and Forsyth counties. The most obvious difference is that our commissioners deliver the invocation at our meetings, as opposed to a member of the clergy being invited to participate. I think any rational, reasonable person who reviews this practice would conclude that our invocations simply set a tone for our meetings, while adhering to the time honored practice of beginning public meetings with an invocation.
I think hyper-sensitivity has gotten out of control in our society. I have been elected to the Rowan County Board of Commissioners for two terms and I have heard many prayers as we open our meetings. I have never heard a prayer delivered by any commissioner that could be considered a violation of the establishment clause. One simple prayer at the beginning of a meeting cannot be viewed as religious establishment by any rational, reasonable person. The thought that one cannot use Jesus' name in a public meeting is wrong, and, at least in my opinion, is a violation of my personal first amendment right guaranteeing free exercise of religion.
The establishment clause, commonly referred to as separation of church and state, was designed to protect against the federal government setting up an official state religion. This protection was eventually extended to protect against actions of a state. Many have filed lawsuits, and with the help of federal courts, have warped this concept to the point where it is almost unrecognizable. The 1st Amendment protects me from being required to worship in a certain manner, or worship at all.
I find no merit to the argument that the invocations that begin the meetings of the Rowan County Board of Commissioners violate the establishment clause of the 1st Amendment, and can find no rational reason why a court would see things from a different perspective.
When it is my turn in the rotation to open our meeting with prayer, I will continue to do so in the manner I always have.
I recall a saying of Ben Franklin's that puts my worry in some context ... "We must all hang together, or assuredly we shall all hang separately."
The ACLU says the debate has prompted 15 other local governments to voluntarily change their policies. Only Rowan County Commissioners are disputing the law.
Mike Meno with the ACLU responded to the email by saying, "I hope the commissioners understand the potential consequences of this especially the consequences this could have on taxpayers who they would bring into the situation potentially."
The ACLU would not comment on the what consequences commissioners could face, but the group filed a lawsuit against Forsyth county last Summer in a similar case and won.