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Commissioners: Shall we pray?

Commissioner Jim Klein bows his head during the invocation at the start of Monday’s county meeting.

 

Courts leave counties uncertain of invocation legality

SARAH LOWERY

Staff Writer

 

A recent court decision regarding sectarian prayer at government sessions may prohibit the types of invocations given before meetings of the Lincoln County Board of Commissioners.

The Associated Press recently reported that the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear an appeal of a ruling by the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals banning sectarian prayer at Forsyth County Board of Commissioners meetings. The 4th Circuit encompasses Maryland, North Carolina, South Carolina, Virginia and West Virginia.

Katy Parker, legal director for the North Carolina chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, told the Times-News last week that, under the law now, prayers of a sectarian nature are “not permitted” at government meetings of any kind.

“This is true for all in the 4th Circuit,” she added.

Parker noted that meetings may be opened with nonsectarian prayer, but any reference to a specific religion would be considered unconstitutional.

While she said the ACLU is not directly targeting
jurisdictions that fail to adhere to the law, it is handling various complaints as they come in. Instead, she noted that an email regarding the ruling has been sent to city and county attorneys across the state to notify them of the change in policy.

County Attorney Wesley Deaton said he has not been made aware of any such complaints to date. He also told the Times-News Monday that he had not yet received an email from the ACLU.

Parker said she hopes government officials will take note of the law, as it is what they are sworn in to uphold. “I hope they would voluntarily do so,” she said.

At Monday’s Lincoln County Board of Commissioners meeting, Chairman Alex Patton addressed the matter, saying the board had been notified that it is “illegal to pray in a government meeting.”

However, according to various media reports on the decision, technically the Fourth Circuit did not ban invocations, but disallowed spoken public meeting prayers that support the beliefs of a specific group that would not be shared by others, such as a Christian prayer naming Jesus.

Patton asked Deaton to bring back a recommendation on “what we can do legally.”

Patton, who often gives the invocations at commission meetings, provided his comments on the situation to the Times-News on Tuesday.

“To the best of my knowledge, every house of worship in our county is Christian,” he said. “I have never had anyone complain to me about our invocation. We were founded as a nation on Christian principles. I fail to see how asking our Creator to bless the business we are about to do is a problem.”

“We ask for His wisdom and guidance,” he continued. “I would think that would be a good thing. Congress opens with prayer and it is not a problem. I am disappointed that the Supreme Court declined to hear this case.”

According to media reports, other federal court circuits have ruled in similar cases and not agreed with the Fourth Circuit. In those other parts of the country, the very same prayers are not restricted. This split in court rulings is likely to continue until the Supreme Court rules on the matter.

As for future meetings, Patton said commissioners will look at all their options to see what they can still legally do.

“I do find it ironic that no one cares if you pray, as long as you do not mention Jesus,” he added

 

Image courtesy of Nayeli Ramirez / Lincoln Times-News

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