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Commissioners create new prayer policy for meetings

ADAM LAWSON

Staff Writer

Duston Barto started Monday night’s Board of Commissioners session by becoming the first person to deliver a Muslim invocation at a Lincoln County government meeting.

By the end of the night, commissioners passed a motion that likely ensures he’ll be the last person to open their meetings with worship. After chastising Board of Commissioners Chairman Carrol Mitchem for walking out of the chamber prior to Barto’s speech, Commissioner Alex Patton motioned to scrap the county’s barely two-month-old all-inclusive invocation policy for a moment of silence.

The motion was unanticipated, occurring at the very end of the meeting, and no public comment was allowed. Only Mitchem voted in opposition.

Patton said the decision came as a result of a lack of participation from area churches.

“The problem there is 102 churches in Lincoln County, plus these that have popped up recently from other religions,” Patton said. “(County clerk Amy Atkins) can’t advertise, so there’s no real way to get them in.”

Commissioner Cecelia Martin first suggested the move to a moment of silence on May 18. That motion was denied, 4-1, and a prayer policy was put into place that enabled any local religious leader or “appointee of any assembly that periodically and regularly meets (within) the County” to give an invocation.

That policy was enacted shortly after Mitchem told the Times-News almost two weeks earlier that he would “not listen to no Muslim pray.” At the meeting that followed, he said that he shared the board’s goal to “come up with a clean, fair and constitutional policy of giving invocations at board meetings.”

But on Monday, Mitchem arrived to the chamber 30 minutes before the meeting started, left the room shortly before its beginning and didn’t return until after the Pledge of Allegiance.

“I said that I would not listen to a Muslim pray, is that not what I’ve said?” said Mitchem, who also told a television reporter that Patton is a “lunatic.”

“And that’s what I’ve done tonight. I’ve done exactly what I said I was going to do. I’m not going to listen to them pray. So I’ve just done all of my commitment.”

Members of the Foothills Interfaith Assembly, which Barto formed along with Wiccan priest Tony Brown, questioned the timing of the decision — which occurred only after a non-Christian delivered a prayer — and the fact that it occurred without allowing public comment. Hickory Humanist Alliance member William Keener was set to give the invocation at the Aug. 17 meeting, but that has now been effectively canceled.

“I don’t think that it was a just-happened-to thing,” Brown said. “It’s obviously a reactionary policy designed to exclude minorities…The idea that it can be one religion for years and years and years and then the moment another faith steps in, they shut it down. That’s not representative. It’s like shutting down a lunch counter because black people want to eat there. That’s what it’s like.”

Following the decision, street preacher Alan Hoyle angrily approached commissioners to voice frustration with the decision. Earlier in the meeting, he accosted Barto and Jason Williams, a Baptist preacher and a member of the Foothills Interfaith Assembly, outside of the chamber and blamed Islam for the deaths of four soldiers.

During Barto’s speech, though, nobody except for Mitchem appeared to leave the room on principle. Barto read the first chapter of the Quran, changed the term Allah to God, and talked about the historical significance of the moment. One woman sat in the back holding an orange sign with the words “no Moslem prayer” displayed toward the crowd, but she waited until after Barto spoke to exit.

Despite the decision, Barto said it was still a victory for non-Christians in Lincoln County.

“From the comments I got from (the other commissioners), saying that they were impressed with the all-embracing statements that were made in my invocation, that the recitation from the Quran was something that everyone could relate to, (that’s a win),” he said.

Barto said the interfaith group will have to reassess the situation. But he added that it will not disband, because it wasn’t formed with the sole purpose of delivering prayers at government meetings.

The next Foothills meeting is schedule for Aug. 20 at Lincolnton’s Charles Jonas Library.

“The interfaith group met because we recognized a serious need for interfaith dialogue and for coexistence to be enriched in Lincoln County so that hate, bigotry and negativity can be purged from our society,” Barto said. “We don’t have room in 2015 for people that hate other people irresponsibly. We don’t have room for people that can only speak in negative tones. We have got to evolve our understanding of one another and that’s why the Foothills Interfaith Assembly exists.”

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