The ruling in Lund v. Rowan County was handed down on Friday, July 14, after arguments before the entire panel of Fourth Circuit Justices was given in March.
Judges held that the overwhelmingly Christian content of invocations given before Rowan County Board of Commissioners’ meetings over a long period of time and delivered only by commission members all added up to the practice being unconstitutional.
Neither commissioner-led prayer nor sectarian invocations are per se unconstitutional, however, according to the Fourth Circuit, the cumulative result of the combination of the two is.
The Haywood County Board of Commissioners was the first local government forced to react to the Rowan County ruling; its second regularly scheduled meeting for July was scheduled for Monday, July 17, only three days after the Rowan ruling was made public.
Whereas commissioners have traditionally opened meetings by delivering non-sectarian prayers, the county sought to comply with that aspect of the ruling by inviting Haywood County Sheriff’s Office Chaplain Jim Haynes to deliver the invocation.
What Haynes delivered was a two-minute, over-the-top, fire-and-brimstone sermon that appeared to be a direct, antagonistic response to the Fourth Circuit that didn’t even attempt to comply with the Rowan ruling’s caution against overly sectarian language.
“God of our fathers, Lord of the nations, you’re the everlasting God, the creator of the ends of the Earth,” said Haynes in opening his invocation.
Later, he said “We shout Your name — you are Yahweh, Jehovah, the personal God, the great ‘I am,’ the eternal God, the Almighty, the powerful God. You are Jesus, savior, Immanuel.”
It is precisely this kind of language — suggesting the Christian god is superior to all others — that got Rowan County in trouble in the first place.
Another problem with Rowan County’s practice was praying on the community’s behalf — something Haynes did repeatedly.
“We invite You to have Your way in our lives, in our state, in our nation and in this room this evening. We love and worship You and in Your name we pray, Amen.”
But according to Haynes’ invocation, the Rowan County ruling asking for some semblance of balance against Christian-dominated proselytization is nothing more than a “smothering cloak of spiritual oppression.”
“Now we find ourselves constantly bombarded with voices of those who demand we distance ourselves from you, and so our spirits rise up within us and throw off this smothering cloak of spiritual oppression and political correctness,” he said. “… we laugh at such foolishness and exalt you as the most high God who strides the wind of the Earth.”
One person who was in attendance at the meeting said they thought the invocation was like nothing they’d heard there before, and wholly out-of-bounds in a county government setting, despite being raised Christian.
The source, a county employee, declined to be identified on the record for fear of possible retaliation.
Commissioner Kevin Ensley — who routinely cites his strong Christian faith as an influence on his commission votes — said the board would study the issue before deciding how to move forward within the law.
“We can’t tell people what to do in this circumstance,” Ensley said. “Justice Kennedy doesn’t want us to become the ‘prayer police.’”
Next on the calendar came Waynesville’s Board of Aldermen meeting July 25, although the town didn’t have to alter its procedure.
Prayers are not offered in public before Waynesville Board meetings, nor is the Pledge of Allegiance recited; the businesslike Mayor Gavin Brown usually drops his gavel promptly at 6:29 p.m. and proceeds with the business of the town, a practice continued by Mayor Pro Temp Gary Caldwell while Brown recovered from a recent illness.
“I haven’t seen it in my 17 years on the board,” Brown said, adding that a quick perusal of town records dating back to 1967 shows no prayers or Pledge of Allegiances noted in meeting minutes.
Thursday, July 27, was the next test for a Haywood County municipality, and the Town of Canton failed almost as spectacularly as Haywood County did.
Canton — like Haywood County and Rowan County — regularly rotates the invocation amongst board members prior to meetings, but at the board’s last regularly scheduled meeting, the invocation was instead given by Pastor David Vos of Canton Wesleyan Church, who was asked to do so just prior to the meeting.
“I had about two minutes to think about it,” Vos laughed, saying that it wasn’t hard to come up with a prayer on such short notice.
“It’s always a bit of a challenge, but it’s part of how I pray routinely for town leadership, police officers, firefighters, and so forth,” he said. “It’s kind of part of my daily routine anyway.”
While much more demure than Haynes’ invocation, Vos’ address still ended with “in Jesus’ name we pray.”
Vos said he was aware of the Fourth Circuit ruling but had no qualms about invoking the name of a deity — which is, again, not unconstitutional per se, but is in large doses.
“It’s what I’ve heard in the last year that I’ve been attending these meetings,” Vos said. “I’ve heard that quite often. I didn’t think about it.”
Moving forward, Vos — along with Haywood County governments — will need to think about it, long and hard.
“I’ll probably talk more with the mayor about it, and get his input,“ Vos said.
The Maggie Valley Board of Aldermen has not met since the Rowan ruling was handed down; the next regularly scheduled board meeting is Aug. 14.