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Muslim prayer to open county board meeting

ADAM LAWSON
Staff Writer

For the first time since Lincoln County commissioners approved an all-inclusive prayer policy more than two months ago, a non-Christian speaker is scheduled to deliver an invocation at a county commissioner meeting.

Duston Barto, who helped form Foothills Interfaith Assembly shortly after the policy was approved on May 18, will read the first chapter of the Quran to open tonight’s semi-monthly government meeting at 6:30 p.m. at the James W. Warren Citizens Center in Lincolnton.

“I just hope to open dialogue,” Barto said. “I hope to maybe shift the paradigm. People think that we’re so different for some reason. When they hear the prayer. When they hear the familiar tones, hopefully (that’ll change).”

The county’s invocation policy was created shortly after Board of Commissioners Chairman Carrol Mitchem told the Times-News he had “no use for” followers of Islam, saying then he’d tell a Muslim attempting to pray to leave the chamber and that he would not “listen to no Muslim pray.”

During the meeting following those comments, Mitchem read a statement saying the opinions were his own and not reflective of the Board of Commissioners. He added that he shared the board’s goal to “come up with a clean, fair and constitutional policy of giving invocations at board meetings.”

Barto’s speech may be the first non-Christian prayer since the policy was introduced, but more are set to follow. William Keener, a representative of the Hickory Humanist Alliance, is set to deliver the invocation at the following meeting on Aug. 17. According to the American Humanist Association, which strives to find “Good Without a God,” humanism is “a progressive philosophy of life that, without theism and other supernatural beliefs, affirms our ability and responsibility to lead ethical lives of personal fulfillment that aspire to the greater good of humanity.”

“We would prefer no invocations at all during government meetings, but the Supreme Court ruled that sectarian invocations are permissible but they must be inclusive,” Keener said. “It’ll be a solemn, respectful and inclusive message.”

The policy allows invocations to be delivered by a county religious leader or “appointee of any assembly that periodically and regularly meets (within) the County for the purpose of worshiping or discussing their religious perspectives.” That language that initially concerned Barto, because of its restriction to only Lincoln County areas of worship. While each of the 102 county churches support a Christian denomination, he said that doesn’t mean the county’s Muslim population isn’t driving to the Islamic Center in Mooresville or similar houses of worship in Gastonia and Charlotte.

“There’s not enough of us in a close enough proximity to have our own worship center,” Barto said. “But does that mean we should be excluded? Does that mean we should be kicked out?”

To combat that language, the Foothills Interfaith Assembly began meeting every other week in June in a conference room at Lincolnton’s Charles Jonas Library. The group includes a Wiccan priest and members with Baptist, humanist, Unitarian, Baha’i, pagan and atheistic beliefs.

Tony Brown, the Wiccan priest, was elected the group’s director and suggested Barto make the first prayer since his religion was the one Mitchem initially ostracized. Barto has since commended county officials for making the scheduling process easy and accepting the group as a Lincoln County organization.

The policy allows speakers to deliver up to four invocations per year (none consecutively), and the group plans to rotate that responsibility out to other members.

“The Board of Commissioners passed a policy and clearly these other groups that come in and give the invocation have the same right as the groups before them had,” County Manager Kelly Atkins said. “I think that this is just an extension of what they’ve approved.”

The invocation is believed to be the first Muslim one ever delivered at a Lincoln County government meeting. The Quran’s first chapter, commonly referred to as “The Opener,” gives praise to “Allah, Lord of the Universe” and asks the deity to “guide us to the straight path.”

During the public comments portion of the May 18 meeting, Barto asked for acceptance and left behind a Quran and Islamic literature for Mitchem to read.

Barto, the editor of Charlotte-based Muslim magazine Muslim American, said the chairman had yet to respond to messages he sent to Mitchem’s government email address.

“If he decides he doesn’t want to communicate with his constituent on a concern that’s something all people should take into consideration when the next election comes up,” Barto said. “The fundamental thing is that county commissioners are being presented with faith philosophies outside of their own experience. That’ll remind them as they lead governance of the county that they lead a diverse group.”

 

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