The delivery of Christian prayers prior to county government meetings is a tradition that won’t dissipate anytime soon, as long as some Lincoln County commissioners have their way.
In response to a question concerning Rowan County, which was recently ordered by a federal court judge to cease its pre-meeting prayers, Lincoln County Board of Commissioners chairman Carrol Mitchem said that not only will invocations remain in Lincoln County, but that he would see to it that no non-Christian prayers are delivered on his watch.
“A Muslim? He comes in here to say a prayer, I’m going to tell him to leave,” Mitchem said. “I have no use for (those) people. They don’t need to be here praying to Allah or whoever the hell they pray to. I’m not going to listen to (a) Muslim pray.”
In a ruling filed on Monday, Judge James A. Beaty ruled that Rowan County violated the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment of the Constitution. According to the court document, commissioners there started each meeting with phrases such as “let us pray” or “please pray with me” before delivering the prayer. Those prayers normally included references to “Jesus” and “The Savior.”
The American Civil Liberties Union filed the suit in 2013.
According to Chris Brook, legal director of the ACLU of North Carolina, Rowan commissioners erred by leading public meetings with prayer, asking the public to participate in that prayer, making derogatory comments about religious minorities to the press and almost uniformly confining the prayers to one religion.
“I think that governmental officials should aim to have public meetings that are as inclusive and welcoming as possible,” Brook said. “We talk all the time as a society about wanting to encourage greater public engagement with our government and have greater public involvement in government decisions. When you construct obstacles such as obstructive prayer practices, then I think you’re falling short of an ideal government meeting that is welcoming and encouraging.”
Beaty awarded the plaintiffs $1 in damages and said that they may pursue attorney’s fees and costs from the county.
Mitchem said he doesn’t agree with anybody, religious minorities especially, altering the way things are done.
“Changing rules on the way the United States was founded, Constitution was founded (I don’t like),” Mitchem said. “I don’t need no Arab or Muslim or whoever telling me what to do or us here in the county what to do about praying. If they don’t like it, stay the hell away.”
At Monday’s Board of Commissioners meeting, Pastor Luke Johnson of Highland Drive Freewill Baptist Church delivered the invocation. Johnson is one of just a couple of religious leaders the county rotates in to give the prayer that comes before the Pledge of Allegiance, according to commissioner Alex Patton.
Patton said that until about six months ago, he or former commissioner Carl Robinson gave the invocation, due to a lack of interest from pastors. He added that he didn’t believe anyone would be denied the opportunity to give the invocation because of their beliefs.
Patton said that it was simply a matter of Lincoln County having 102 churches and all 102 representing the Christian faith.
“There’s not a single house of worship in Lincoln County that isn’t Christian,” Patton said. “There’s no Muslim mosque, no Hindu (temple). I’m sure Rowan County is pretty much the same way…We have never said that we would limit it to one denomination or one religion. I just don’t know that there’s any Jewish pastors or anything like that in Lincoln County.”
Patton, a Christian, said that he doesn’t agree with the Rowan County ruling because the commissioners were simply displaying their religious preferences.
He said that he believes government has gone too far in serving the minority.
“We’ve gone overboard in catering to the small vocal minority,” Patton said. “Atheists are 1 or 2 percent or whatever, but because they cry the loudest, people cater to them. Judges cater to the freedom of religion. That freedom is for me as a Christian as well.”
According to a 2012 Pew Research Center study, 73 percent of Americans identify themselves as Christian, 6 percent identify with other faiths and 19.6 percent are unaffiliated with a religion. The study says that 2.4 percent consider themselves atheist.
Commissioner Cecelia Martin said that perhaps there could be an alternative to the current invocation process.
“I think it’s alright to have an invocation and let it be a moment of silence,” Martin said. “All people of all religions could pray to whomever their religion believes they should pray to. I think that would fall within the guidelines and we’re a little bit outside the guidelines by allowing Christianity to be the main (religion). I would advocate a moment of silence, is what I would advocate. But the fellow commissioners see fit to do otherwise and that’s fine with me as well.”
Mitchem said that if any non-Christian were to deliver a prayer at the chamber he would get up and leave. He maintained that as long as he is on the board, he will help to ensure the practice doesn’t change.
“I’m very adamant about that,” Mitchem said. “I’ll do everything in my power to make sure that happens. We’re going to pray as usual.”