The U.S. Supreme Court has given limited approval to public prayers at a New York town’s board meeting, citing the country’s history of religious acknowledgement in its legislature.
The majority in the 5-4 ruling stated that opening local government meetings with sectarian prayers does not violate the establishment clause as long as no religion is advanced or disparaged and participants are not coerced. However, the ruling is confined to the specific circumstances, offering little suggestion as to how other communities should offer civic prayers without violating the Constitution.
At their meeting on May 5, county commissioner Carroll Mitchem brought the ruling to the board’s attention.
“There was a ruling today by the Supreme Court, if I understand this correctly, that now any government can pray to the Lord, to Jesus — however you want to pray, you can pray,” Mitchem said.
“I hope in the future that we, as commissioners, go back to our original way of having prayers and saying what we want to say. Now, if somebody don’t like it, they get up, walk out and leave so we can pray the way we want to pray. If they don’t like it, they can leave and then come back in afterwards. I hope to continue that as long as I have a mind and body…at the next commissioner meeting, I expect us to pray the way we want to pray.”
Commissioner Alex Patton agreed with Mitchem’s request.
Lincolnton’s City Council members, however, are taking a more cautious approach to the matter. City Council member Larry Mac Hovis brought the ruling to the council’s attention during a budget meeting on Wednesday. He then made a motion to bring prayer into City Council meetings by means of a clergy member.
City Council member Dr. John Cloninger was the first to oppose the motion, stating that the ruling needed to be further investigated.
“This needs to be investigated before we opt in on this,” he said. “Are you going to sit here and have a Hindu pray to Mohammed or whomever? They have that legal right of unity, and I do not think we ought to open this bag of worms up.”
Council member Martin Eaddy suggested, instead, to follow the school board’s policy.
“I know the school district goes with a moment of silence where people can then acknowledge their beliefs and pray to whatever god they believe in during that moment of silence,” he said.
While council member Devin Rhyne supported Hovis’s motion, he suggested postponing a decision until further investigation could be done.
“I agree with (Hovis), but I would strongly urge we get some more information — even if we can wait two weeks or for our next monthly meeting — so we can see what the Supreme Court said and see how we can do it right…so we can figure out what we can and cannot do,” he said.
“I think our attorney may need to look into it,” City Manager Jeff Emory said. “I believe the legal municipalities have already said they want to look into it because along with the motion, you may want to have some real parameters about it. As far as the rules and regulations as to who invites whom and how you get someone here, I really think it needs a little bit more time to study.”
City Council members voted unanimously to approve a substitute motion to table the decision until further research could be done.