By Dale Neal • Special to The Smoky Mountain News
Evangelist Billy Graham — a spiritual guide to generations of American evangelicals, a globe-trotting preacher who converted millions to Christianity, and a confidante to presidents — died today at the age of 99.
Graham personally preached the Christian gospel to more people on the planet than any other evangelist in the 2,000 years of Christianity.
Some authors and critics sniff at best-sellers. I suppose the idea is that a novel appealing to so many thousands may contain vivid action or fascinating characters, but somehow fall below what critics may regard as the “standards of literature.” In the last hundred years in particular, we have seen a shift in favor of the new and revolutionary in literature over more traditional forms of storytelling. Most critics, for example, would regard Faulkner’s The Sound and The Fury as literarily superior to best-selling Erich Marie Remarque’s All Quiet On The Western Front, both of which appeared in 1929.
Wearing a leopard-print leotard and suspended 4 feet off the ground in a band of purple silk, Patricia Forgione is in her element.
“And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by men. I tell you the truth, they have received their reward in full. But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.”
— From the Gospel of Matthew
Purveyors of religion have recently been touting the need for elected officials to make public proclamations of their faith, citing examples of martyrs, saints and Jesus himself proclaiming themselves Christians in the face of certain death. Truth be told, equating such life and death drama as being similar to whether a county commissioner makes a specific kind of prayer at a county board meeting is like comparing an earthquake to a hiccup.
For those who haven’t been following this controversy, a recent court ruling in North Carolina has reaffirmed longstanding case law that says praying to Jesus — thereby referring to a specific religion — to open a county board meeting does not pass constitutional muster. Forsythe County commissioners who want to get a better interpretation of what they can and can’t do are challenging the court ruling allowing only a prayer to a generic god. That lawsuit will sort things out, which is a good thing as leaders in many of our western counties are caught in the crosshairs and trying to figure out how to handle this divisive issue.
Perhaps I’ve lost some of my youthful hellfire, but personally I don’t particularly care what kind of prayer opens a public meeting. I wouldn’t care if a Hindu commissioner gave some prayer that satisfied his own spiritual yearning. I don’t care if Christians do the same. As long as the leaders are carrying out their official duties in an ethical, honest and straightforward manner, let them pray to whatever god leads them down that path.
But my personal feelings, and the personal feelings of those giving elected officials a hard time, are irrelevant. More importantly, what happened at a recent Haywood County board meeting points out exactly why we need laws to govern this issue. Here’s what one citizen said: “If the majority of people want public prayer in the name of Jesus, we ought to have it.”
No, we shouldn’t, and that’s exactly the problem. The majority who wants the prayer is a mostly benign group of local citizens who want nothing else than for their leaders to proclaim their faith and pass laws accordingly. As has been pointed out many times, though, we are a religious nation governed by law, not a lawful nation governed by religion.
In Haywood County, Commissioner Mark Swanger has been a school board chairman, a county board chairman and is now a county commissioner. Swanger has very earnest and intelligent views when it comes to the interplay between the public and public servants. He recognizes the danger when the majority believes it can pass any measures that the majority supports, despite what courts — the check and balance on our legislators and our executive branch — have ruled.
“I am very uneasy with anyone telling a commissioner or anyone else what the content of a prayer should be. That’s what the Taliban does,” Swanger told The Asheville Citizen-Times.
I was sitting in church on Ash Wednesday last week when the priest said something that caught me completely off guard. Next to Easter, Ash Wednesday is the best attended of all masses, he said. He didn’t say it outright, but the inference was that some come to get the sign of the cross on their forehead with ashes and then go out into the world for all to see.
The hypocrites — Matthew’s words (see the beginning of this column), not mine — were also at work at the recent county board meeting. No, I’m not questioning the religious beliefs of those who spoke, for it seemed very clear that they had very strong feelings about faith.
What is hypocritical is for anyone to put themselves at the gates of Christiandom and declare that they know what is right when it comes to prayer. Can anyone take seriously those who proclaim that a county official who refuses to pray like they want him or her to pray is somehow not a real Christian?
This prayer controversy is not akin to abortion or the death penalty or providing government aid to the poor. In debating issues like those, one’s personal faith does cross into the public sphere, and we seek out leaders who have the same beliefs as us. That is how our system works.
But let’s not judge our elected officials — or anyone, for that matter — based on an interpretation of what constitutes proper prayer. Doing so belittles the personal covenant of faith and vainly attempts to elevate ourselves as judges in a sphere where mere mortals don’t have standing. As the familiar boyhood taunt goes, who died and made them god?
A group of Christians paid a visit to Haywood County commissioners Monday night to urge them to pray to Jesus when opening each meeting.
Commissioner Kevin Ensley, the sole commissioner who referred to Jesus during invocations, decided in late January to refrain from praying at all since he couldn’t legally mention the word “Jesus” while leading public prayer.
Ensley’s decision was prompted by a recent court ruling in Forsyth County that struck down overt Christian prayers by commissioners. Generic prayer, however, is fully acceptable by legal standards.
The Forsyth ruling was not revolutionary. It has been widely established that prayers by government officials during public meetings specifically referring to “Jesus” violate the First Amendment, which holds that the state cannot endorse any one religion.
Speakers urged Haywood commissioners to engage in civil disobedience, arguing that there are some principles worth fighting for.
They vehemently opposed praying to an unknown God to satisfy the minority and called for a vote by citizens on the issue.
“The majority’s with the believers, with the Christians,” said one speaker, emphasizing that he only votes for conservative, Christian leaders.
“Prayer in any other name other than the name of Jesus is an empty prayer,” said Reverend Roy Kilby, who asked commissioners if they are Christians. All five of them raised their hands.
Shortly after the public comment period ended, Ensley said he had changed his mind and wanted to be included in the prayer rotation for meetings again. He said he would recite the opening and closing lines of the Lord’s Prayer, which does not expressly mention “Jesus” but still implies Christianity.
Ensley said he understood that folks were upset, but that he was glad that he helped revive the tradition of a prayer to open commissioner meetings shortly after he was elected.
“I’m glad we at least have it,” said Ensley.
Most commissioners indicated their devotion to Christianity, but said they must respect the separation of church and state.
Commissioner Kirk Kirkpatrick stated he went to one of the few Christian law schools in the country, while Commissioner Skeeter Curtis said he’d only stop praying when Washington did.
Commissioner Bill Upton emphasized that he doesn’t have to use “Jesus” to validate his prayer.
“I know who I’m talking to. That’s the important thing,” said Upton. “I know who the Heavenly Father is, and I don’t back up from that.”
County commissioners in Western North Carolina face a fork in the road after a federal judge in Forsyth County made it clear last week that prayers mentioning “Jesus” at county meetings are unconstitutional.
They can submit to the law, or continue violating it.
Haywood County commissioners have decided to opt for the first, less litigious route, while Macon County commissioners insist they will carry on with their overtly Christian prayers — despite the potential threat of a lawsuit similar to the one in Forsyth.
In the middle is Swain County, where commissioners may be split over whether to alter their prayers. Jackson County does not have a prayer to open its county meetings.
On Thursday, U.S. District Court Judge James Beaty ruled that Forsyth County commissioners violated the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution by endorsing Christianity at their government meetings. The ruling will likely carry weight across the state and cause county commissioners to reevaluate their prayer policies.
Although Forsyth commissioners invited pastors from all faiths to give the invocation at the beginning of each meeting, nearly all the ones who showed up led Christian prayers.
This revolving door policy of sorts closely mirrors that of Macon County. Haywood and Swain commissioners lead the opening prayers themselves.
Haywood County Attorney Chip Killian said he’d notified the commissioners of the Forsyth case and advised them to no longer use sectarian prayers. Of the three Haywood commissioners who took turns giving the prayer, two already avoided specific references to Jesus. But Commissioner Kevin Ensley closed every prayer with “In Jesus’ name.”
It happened to be Ensley’s turn to lead the prayer Monday, mere days after the federal ruling was handed down. Before the meeting started, Chairman Kirk Kirkpatrick asked Ensley if he’d be comfortable praying without invoking a specific religion.
Ensley decided to step aside, however if he couldn’t pray according to his faith. Ensley said he took himself out of the rotation for prayer to avoid trouble with the courts.
Ensley and Kirkpatrick agreed they would rather have a generic invocation before meetings than not pray at all.
“If that’s the way the court’s ruling right now, I guess we should abide by the law,” said Ensley. “To me, it’s a freedom of speech issue...It’s a shame that there’s a minority of people out there that’s offended by something they don’t even believe.”
While Kirkpatrick said he also feels strongly about his Christian faith, he only uses generic words like “God” and “Lord,” which are allowed under established law.
“When I give the invocation, I am wary that I’m giving it for the county and not for myself,” said Kirkpatrick. “I think that’s the difference.”
Haywood Commissioner Skeeter Curtis agreed the board should respect the law.
“Whatever the law requires us to have to do, we’re going to have to do it,” said Curtis. “There’s no way that we can go against that.”
Macon County commissioners are adamantly continuing their prayer policy, which endorses Christianity.
Macon Commissioner Jim Davis said while he took an oath to uphold the law when elected, he disagrees with this one and believes it needs to be changed.
Davis admits the prayer policy might alienate some, but said he delineates between prayer at school, which is mandatory, and prayer at commissioners meeting, which residents can skip.
As a Christian, Davis said he is not offended by the mention of “Jesus” in prayers before the commissioners meetings.
“I’m just not a very politically correct guy,” said Davis. “We can’t guarantee that people aren’t going to be offended. You have a right to be offended, and I have a right to not be bothered by that.”
Macon County Chairman Ronnie Beale said he would suggest continuing a practice that’s “worked for decades” in Macon County.
The federal ruling from across the state will not impact Macon County’s policy, Beale said.
“That’s in Forsyth County, not Macon County,” said Beale, adding that the board does not plan to discuss the prayer policy unless it is brought up.
Beale said he could not comment on the potential for a lawsuit over the county’s violation of constitutional law, claiming the possibilities for someone suing the county are endless.
“We’ll cross that bridge when we get to it,” said Beale.
Alex Cury, chair of the Western North Carolina chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, said it is unfortunate some government leaders are brazenly breaking the law.
“I think that it’s completely unethical for elected officials to ignore the long established law of the land,” said Cury. “I would like to see elected officials follow the law. If they don’t like the law, they can seek a constitutional measure to correct the law. Many of us disagree with the law, but to violate the law is to violate the position of trust.”
There are measures available to any citizen who opposes Christian prayers at government meetings, Cury said.
“But that’s up to the citizens of the community, whether they are offended and want the law enforced,” said Cury. These residents can start by expressing their thoughts and feelings with county commissioners, with legal recourse as another option.
Cury’s recommendation to commissioners is to avoid hot water by opting for a few minutes of silence.
“People who think it’s important to pray can pray silently,” said Cury. “People who are not people of faith can think over what they’re going to say.”
Swain County commissioners aren’t eager to discontinue Christian prayers at their meeting but are mulling the possibility.
Kim Lay, who serves as the attorney to the Swain County board, said she is obligated to recommend that commissioners follow the law, whatever that may be.
“I will advise the board when asked what the status of the law is at this time and advise them to follow it,” Lay said.
In Swain County, Commissioners Phil Carson and Steve Moon take turns saying a prayer to open the commissioners meetings, and both routinely offer the prayer in the name of Jesus Christ. Both feel strongly about praying in Jesus’ name as an integral part of their prayer.
“If I am called upon to pray, I will pray in Jesus’ name,” Moon said.
But Moon acknowledged that he doesn’t want the county to bear unintended consequences, like a lawsuit that would cost taxpayer money to defend.
“If I was only speaking for myself, I would continue to pray, but since I am a county commissioner and represent the county of Swain, I don’t want the county of Swain to get sued,” Moon said.
Moon said the commissioners will need to discuss the issue and decide what to do in light of the federal court ruling.
Swain County Commissioner David Monteith isn’t in the prayer rotation for Swain meetings, but if he was ever given the opportunity to lead the prayer, he says he would do so in Jesus’ name.
“I don’t pray without saying ‘In Jesus’ name,’” Monteith said. “There best be a federal judge there to arrest me because I will not compromise on that.”
Technically, federal case precedent dating to 2004 already bans references to Jesus Christ during prayers at county commissioners meetings in North Carolina. But many counties have carried on unfazed.
In the latest case, Judge Beaty ruled that striking down Christian prayer at government meetings does not infringe on the private rights of citizens to free speech or free exercise of religion.
The sole question, Beaty wrote, is whether the government has endorsed a particular faith.
The Supreme Court has recognized that legislative prayers that open or solemnize government meetings are part of a “rich history and tradition in this country” and are constitutional. However, the Supreme Court has also emphasized that such legislative prayers should not affiliate government with a particular faith or belief.
The Forsyth ruling quotes a previous case, which states, “Repeated invocation of the tenets of a single faith undermines our commitment to participation by persons of all faiths in public life. For ours is a diverse nation not only in matters of secular viewpoint but also in matters of religious adherence.”
Forsyth County Commissioners now face their own choice on prayer: no longer opening meetings with a prayer or open with a generic invocation.
Becky Johnson contributed to this report.
Responding to a Smoky Mountain News article covering the debate over prayer at public meetings, a group of Macon County residents attended the county’s first board meeting of the New Year to urge the commissioners to hold their ground on praying in Jesus’ name before its meetings.
Rev. Greg Rogers thanked the board for taking a “bold stand” in defense of Christian prayer. His speech was punctuated by “amens” from a large group of supporters gathered in the county’s boardroom.
The meeting began, as it does normally, with an invocation. Rev. Guy Duvall prayed at length and finished his prayer with the familiar words, “In Jesus’ name we pray.”
The county-sanctioned prayer confirmed the position Macon County Chairman Ronnie Beale established in last week’s news story when he said he supported the use of praying in Jesus’ name.
Technically, federal case precedent dating to 2004 already bans references to Jesus Christ during prayers at county commissioners meetings in North Carolina. But many counties have carried on the practice.
A current lawsuit, being waged in Winston-Salem, specifically challenges the practice of guest pastors from the community being invited to give the invocations. The same practice is used in Macon County. But Beale said earlier that unless a court case landed on his own doorstep, he has no intention of changing course.
Rev. Rogers promised his support and the support of his congregants in the event of a court battle.
“Thank you. We support you,” Rogers said. “I know there are many who will come to oppose us and say we need a moment of silence instead, but we believe that prayer only works in Jesus’ name.”
A federal magistrate’s recommendation that limits prayer before government meetings in Forsyth County has touched off a fiery debate across the state over the long-entrenched practice.
In early November, Magistrate Judge Trevor Sharp determined that Forsyth County commissioners failed to remain religiously neutral. Even though they invited outside clergy of different denominations to deliver invocations before meetings, their prayers overwhelmingly referred to Jesus Christ, Savior or the Trinity. Such invocations “display a preference for Christianity over other religions by the government,” Sharp wrote.
The lawsuit was filed on behalf of two longtime residents of Forsyth County who said they felt coerced to stand for the prayer, alienated as county residents, and less inclined to attend county meetings.
A formal judge’s ruling is still pending, but it is widely held the magistrate’s recommendation will prevail. Forsyth County has already filed an objection and it is unclear how far an appeal might go. A decision is still pending. Precedents barring references to Christ at government meetings in the state are already on the books, however, according to a ruling by the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals in 2004 that originated in South Carolina. There, a citizen sued his town board for praying specifically to Jesus Chirst during the invocations and won.
After Sharp’s recommendation came to light, Buncombe County commissioners toyed with the idea of replacing their invocations with a moment of silence. Following a backlash from some county residents, the commissioners decided to keep their system of rotating clergy in place until the Forsyth case is decided.
While each county attorney has the responsibility of advising individual boards on prayer, Jim Blackburn, general counsel for the North Carolina Association of County Commissioners, advises commissioners to track down a court decision that defends their particular type of prayer.
Blackburn said it is far from unusual for county commissioners in North Carolina to conduct prayers at meetings, but the NCACC has not yet had much discussion on the practice. With the Forsyth case striking a chord for many commissioners, that’s likely to change.
“I expect we will [discuss prayer] at various meetings in the rest of winter and spring,” said Blackburn. “I do know there are people on boards of commissioners who feel strongly they ought to be able to do them.”
With a wealth of court battles waged over public prayers producing varied results, there’s bound to be some uncertainty each time the controversial topic resurfaces.
First Amendment and Constitutional scholars have debated the issue for a hundred years, and entire law school textbooks have been devoted to the subject, according to Blackburn.
“It’s an argument that’s been going on for a long, long time,” said Blackburn.
While the First Congress held a prayer before its sessions, the Constitution plainly states that the government can never establish an official religion.
“There’s just a logical disconnect,” said Janet Ford, a Western Carolina University professor who teaches a course on civil rights.
In 1983, Supreme Court upheld opening legislative sessions with generic prayers in Marsh v. Chambers. But more recently, Supreme Court justices have grown stringent about allowing prayers in public settings, especially in schools.
Justices seem to have drawn a distinction between prayer at schools and those at government meetings, according to Collins.
For example, even school prayers that are voluntary and nondenominational have been stricken down.
The Supreme Court rejected the state of Alabama’s institution of a moment of silence for personal reflection and prayer in all elementary schools.
According to Collins, the justices are strict about prayer in school because the setting is somewhat unique.
“Children are more impressionable. They can’t just get up and leave,” Collins said.
While prayers that children encounter in school every day receive high publicity, county meetings often have sparse attendance, allowing their prayers to land further off the radar.
Local government officials are usually unaware of the law or decide to break it anyway because they feel supported in their crusade by voters, Collins said.
Until they are legally challenged, local officials can continue flagrantly violating the law, thereby drawing attention to the limits of the judicial branch’s reach.
It would be difficult to change the status quo if most voters and commissioners accepted Christian prayers before government meetings, Collins added.
“For the elected officials, it may actually be a campaign point,” said Collins. “They may actually gain votes this way.”
Katy Parker, legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union of North Carolina, said most county and city attorneys agree with the ACLU, but they are unable to force their commissioners or city council members to follow the law.
Parker advises commissioners to consider that their taxpayers would be likely to foot the bill should a lawsuit arise. In the Forsyth case, which Parker is prosecuting, ACLU has already spent in excess of $100,000.
While courts throughout the country have differed wildly in their judgments on prayers, Collins said as a guideline, a generic reference to God will more likely be allowed than any words confessing a particular faith. Words like “Heavenly Father” and “Lord” tend to be acceptable at public meetings, but uttering “Jesus” is usually the ticket to a lost lawsuit.
Parker said it’s hardly ever a close call with the cases she handles.
“It’s Jesus, Jesus, Jesus all throughout the prayer,” said Parker.
The majority opinion in Marsh v. Chambers ruled that there was a historical precedence for prayer before legislative sessions. Prayers also serve to “solemnize” the occasion.
The opinion amusingly adds that legislators need all the help they can get, Parker said.
While prayers are held before sessions of the U.S. Congress, it would take a U.S. Senator or Congressman’s challenge to change policy at that level.
ACLU would not complain against a specific county unless a resident who attends meetings and is bothered by prayers contacts the organization.
“We need to hear from somebody in the community who feels harmed before we’re going to take our time and resources and get involved,” said Parker. “Whether the ACLU contacts them or not, they swore to uphold the Constitution, and they should do it.”
Some religious symbols, such as a Christmas trees, have become so routine and ceremonial that they have shed their religious symbolism in the public’s eye.
“We see it so often, it’s not thought of as necessarily endorsing religion,” said Todd Collins, professor of public law at Western Carolina University.
Courts have also upheld engraving “In God We Trust” on all coins and currency, arguing that it does not endorse religion.
Collins said this particular usage of that phrase has become a part of tradition and seems to hold little meaning for many who regularly see it on currency.
They haven’t gone quietly, and they haven’t gone quickly, but Christians are losing the battle over prayer in public life.
Courts have banned public displays of the Ten Commandments in a religious context. School prayer has been demoted to a moment of silence. Prayers are no longer trumpeted from loudspeakers at the start of high school football games. Nativity scenes that once adorned courthouse lawns at Christmas have been supplanted by generic displays of candy canes. The nonsectarian rallying cry even threatened to restore the Pledge of Allegiance to its original version by stripping the words “under God.”
But in Western North Carolina, one vestige of religion in the public sphere still stands strong. Christian prayers before government meetings continue to thrive in Haywood, Macon and Swain counties.
Federal court precedent already on the books stipulates that commissioners avoid references to Jesus Christ in their prayers at meetings, and a pending ruling in a Forsyth County case (see “Latest prayer case rekindles controversy”) would strengthen that requirement. The controversial court case has ignited a passionate philosophical debate.
Swain County Commissioner David Monteith doesn’t see how it is possible to pray to God but not Jesus.
“That is a bunch of baloney,” Monteith said.
Monteith feels strongly that his prayers would be compromised if he could not offer them in Jesus’s name.
“If a man put a gun to my head and said I cannot say a prayer and worship Jesus Christ, I would say go ahead and pull the trigger,” Monteith said.
Those of other faiths say they are excluded when prayers are cemented in Christ’s name, however. Zvi Altman, a spiritual leader at Mountain Synagogue in Franklin, said he is sensitive to that whenever he leads a public prayer.
“When I offer a public invocation, I am mindful that I am praying on behalf of the entire community, and not just for myself or my faith community,” said Altman.
Altman said he purposely avoids language that excludes people from those prayers or implies that solely his religion is valid.
“Only Christians pray ‘in Jesus’ name,’” said Altman, adding that many in the Christian majority, especially in the South, do not reflect enough on the prayers.
“They just think, well, we’re not excluding anyone — not the Catholics, or the Methodists, or the Baptists, or the folks at Church of God, or Church of Christ,” said Altman. “But they are excluding Jews, Muslims, Hindus and anyone else who is not a Christian.”
Altman said he prefers to think that those who exclude him in their prayers are not doing so purposefully, just that they haven’t thought carefully about their actions.
“People have to adjust to a way of thinking that is broader and more tolerant,” said Alex Cury, the chair of the Western North Carolina chapter of the ACLU.
“We’re a multicultural country,” said Lu Lewellen, 69, an atheist in Waynesville. “All of these cultures should be respected.”
Lewellen said the prayer is more likely to offend non-Christians with faiths of their own than atheists like herself, however.
“Unlike some other minorities, it’s easy for us to pass,” said Lewellen.
Lianna Constantino, high priestess of the Sylva Hearth Pagan Temple, said prayers that specifically reference Jesus Christ in Haywood, Swain and Macon counties persist simply because the practice has never been challenged. In her opinion, holding any one group above another promotes an atmosphere of intolerance.
In Constantino’s view, it will take a long time for major change, somewhat due to the makeup of WNC society.
“There hasn’t been a lot of diversity like there has been in other parts of the country,” said Constantino. “As a simple fact, this is a pretty homogenous Christian-entrenched society in the South.”
Gibbs Knott, head of the political science department at Western Carolina University, said religion has long been important to life in WNC. That long-established influence means an uphill battle for ending prayers before government meetings.
“Church groups have been organized for political issues in the past,” said Knotts. “I would fully expect that many members of WNC’s religious community would get together and speak out.”
Haywood County Commissioner Kevin Ensley said the context of a local community and its prevailing faith should count for something.
“I think it is part of our community. You have 200 churches in Haywood County,” Ensley said. “If you disregard that fact, then you are catering to the atheists and the other 1 percent.”
Haywood County Commissioner Mark Swanger said as elected leaders, they are obligated to represent all their citizens, including the minority, however small.
“Lots of people would use the argument that the founding fathers were Christian and the vast majority of people in Haywood County are Christian,” Swanger said.
But that is not the premise of Constitutional freedoms, whether it’s freedom of the press or the right to vote.
“These protections are not to protect the majority. They are to protect the minority,” said Swanger, a retired special agent in the FBI.
Despite a great divide between the two camps, each side has proudly waved the U.S. Constitution in an effort to justify its standpoint.
At war are the equally compelling values of separation of church and state, and freedom of speech and religion.
“The Constitution should be honored,” said Alex Cury, chair of the WNC chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union. “This is not a Christian nation .... We don’t live in a theocracy.”
Constantino, high priestess of the Sylva Hearth Pagan Temple, said endorsing Christian prayers before meetings blatantly violates a precious partition between religion and state.
“I think it is rude, arrogant and presumptuous to impose any singular religious tradition on a religiously diverse society,” said Constantino.
Opening meetings with a prayer perpetuates the impression that one must be a believer of God to attend, according to 69-year-old Waynesville resident Lewellen.
“They could pray to almighty Zeus as far as I’m concerned,” said Lewellen, a member of WNC Atheists. “Just leave religion out of government. It doesn’t belong there.”
Meanwhile, the same Constitution that mandates separation of church and state also affords for freedom of religion and freedom of speech.
Swain County Commissioner Phil Carson said telling him what he can — or can’t — say in a prayer violates his freedom of speech and freedom of religion.
Carson’s fellow commissioner David Monteith argued that his rights to practice religion are being stripped by outsiders with different beliefs.
“To me, this is people who in the United States want all of our rights and freedoms, but they don’t want to give us our rights,” Monteith said.
Yet the courts aren’t dictating to people how they can pray on their own time or in private settings, said Mary Teslow, a resident of Macon County and president of the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Franklin. Instead, the court rulings are trying to prevent the government from promoting one faith at the exclusion of others.
“We would absolutely support their freedom of religion as an individual, but they are doing the work of the community and that is a shared responsibility. They have every right to have their own religious preference in their own lives, but this is the life of the community,” Teslow said.
Cury pointed out there are plenty of other arenas for prayer in Western North Carolina.
“There are churches all up and down the Main Streets of these towns,” Cury said.
A compromise that Lewellen and Constantino both support is switching to a moment of silence to allow for personal prayer.
“I don’t know any pagan who would have a problem with that,” said Constantino. “That’s a very considerate option.”
With 30 years of experience in interfaith work, Constantino said making everybody happy is not easy but it is possible.
Whether offered by guest pastors or by the commissioner themselves, invocations generally call on God to help the elected leaders make wise decisions, but they often touch other aspects of life as well. Commissioners have thanked the Lord for spring rains that nurtured farmer’s fields, asked for assistance in preventing an H1N1 epidemic, prayed for the safety of soldiers overseas, and asked God to be by the side of a well-known family who had lost a loved one.
At one Haywood commissioners meeting in April where a throng of angry citizens packed the audience, the prayer even thanked God for the democratic process and for living in a country where people were permitted to express their opinions.
“As a Christian, you always want to ask for blessings on all the business that’s going to transpire,” said Macon County Commissioner Ronnie Beale. “Speaking for myself, I have to ask him everyday for his guidance and direction in my life.”
While few could argue against the noble effort by elected leaders to make good decisions on behalf of their constituents, it is possible to do so without elevating their religion above others, said Mary Teslow, a resident of Macon County and president of the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Franklin.
Teslow said commissioners could opt for a “shared affirmation for the work at hand,” a common ritual at her own church where the congregation cuts across several different faiths. Before church meetings, they take a moment to reflect on their shared purpose, center themselves and come together as a community.
“We would be supportive to the commitment of shared work but we would rather it not have such strong Christian language. We would rather it be inclusive, whether from a religious or cultural or gender perspective,” Teslow said.
Teslow would like to see the Macon County commissioners take a similar tact by saying an inclusive prayer rather than one that excludes people of different beliefs.
“We would like the circle widened of the people who participate in our community and public life,” Teslow said.
Commissioners generally initiate the prayer at meetings with “Let us pray” or “Please bow your heads.” It poses a conundrum for Lewellen, an atheist in Waynesville, who doesn’t believe in prayer at all. Whenever she encounters prayers at events, Lewellen said she might stand up but not bow her head or move her lips. If she’s in a bad mood, she might even walk out in protest.
“I don’t believe in supernatural beings, and I don’t pray to them,” said Lewellen.
When Constantino, a pagan, comes across a prayer at a Christian function, she bows her heads respectfully and says amen. But if the prayer occurs in a public setting, Constantino said she is more likely to sit with her head up and her eyes wide open.
Macon County’s practice of inviting rotating pastors to give an invocation closely mirrors the prayer patterns in Forsyth County targeted in the latest federal suit. Like in Forsyth, Macon County leaders say the floor is open to pastors of all faiths to take a turn at the podium, but in practice, the prayers are always Christian.
Ronnie Beale, chairman of the Macon County board of commissioners, said the board has never rejected a request to lead the prayer thus far. Furthermore, no one has ever complained.
Beale said the board does not tell the ministers it invites how to pray.
“We don’t set no standards and say this is what you must say or don’t say,” said Beale. “We’re not going to dictate to people how they pray.”
Mary Teslow, a resident of Macon County and president of the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Franklin, said there is an underlying flaw with the notion of rotating guest pastors.
“In theory that would be nice, but in practice that doesn’t work. If you were in Atlanta or New York, you might get a variety, but in functionality, you don’t get that here,” Teslow said.
Those with different religious views are in the minority here and likely wouldn’t feel welcome showing up at a commissioners meeting to share their prayer. In other cases, they might lack an organized church with an official pastor, and could either be overlooked or not pass the vetting process, Teslow said.
In Haywood County, commissioners give the invocation rather than guest pastors, but Commissioner Kevin Ensley said he would support a request to do so from someone of another faith.
“I think if there are other faiths that want to pray during the meeting, I think you have to let them do that. You have to let the minority have their turn, too,” Ensley said.
Like Haywood, Swain commissioners take turns saying the prayers. No one from another faith has ever asked to offer the invocation at a Swain commissioner’s meeting, said Swain Commissioner David Monteith. But if they did, they could make use of the public comment period at the start of a meeting.
“We don’t ban them from standing up and praying to whoever they want to,” Monteith said. “If he signs up for his three minutes, he can say whatever he wants to. He can talk about why the sky is blue if he wants to.”
Still, it could be perceived as a double standard for commissioners to allow Christian prayers as part of the official meeting, but relegate those of other faiths to sign up to speak for up to three minutes during the public comment period.
Supporters of prayer point to the long-standing practice — one as old as the nation itself — of beginning meetings with an invocation, from town halls to the halls of Congress.
“It’s part of our heritage here that we start every meeting with prayer,” said Swain County Commissioner Phil Carson, adding that the country was founded on the principles of God.
“‘In God We Trust’ is still on the money, even though people are trying really hard to take the principles of God out of our country,” said Carson.
Macon County Commissioner Ronnie Beale argued that Judeo-Christian values shaped the Constitution.
“Our country was founded pretty much by Christians,” said Beale, though he added that the government does allow people of other faiths to practice.
Jackson County Commissioner Brian McMahan holds the opposite view.
According to McMahan, the intent of the country’s founding fathers was to deter any sort of organized, government-sanctioned religion. Since so many had immigrated to the U.S. to escape religious persecution, the leaders wanted to allow everyone to worship in whatever way they pleased.
Leading a prayer at a commissioners meeting that references Allah, Jesus or another specific religious figure would be equivalent to endorsing a particular religion, McMahan said.
“That’s not what we’re there for,” said McMahan. “I think that goes against the U.S. Constitution.”
With the government gradually stripping away vestiges of Christianity from its sphere in recent decades, some are lamenting the loss of Christian principles.
“I think it is part of the downfall of our country,” Carson said. “If we all honored God and loved our neighbor, the world would be a much better place.”
Macon County Commissioner Bob Simpson agreed, stating that he was raised in a culture that respected the practice of saying the Lord’s Prayer before the Pledge of Allegiance every morning at school.
“It’s just the way I was raised,” said Simpson. “We’re taking religion out of everything. It’s made a difference in the world as we see it today ... since they took it out of schools, our morals started going downhill.”
Threat of a federal lawsuit won’t be enough to stop some county commissioners in Western North Carolina from praying in the name of Jesus Christ before their meetings.
“I wouldn’t go out and deliberately break a law, but if there was a law that said how I could pray, I think I would have to break it,” said Swain Commissioner Phil Carson.
Swain County Commissioner David Monteith said he doesn’t care what the court ruling says, and the county commissioners will continue to offer prayers in Christ’s name.
“I am going to do it anyway, it’s just that simple,” Monteith said. “I don’t want somebody to come to me and tell me I can’t do this. I guess they would just have to arrest me.”
In Macon County, Chairman Ronnie Beale says he won’t back down either, citing public support for Christian-based prayers.
“The constituents of Macon County that I represent would agree that a Christian prayer is appropriate,” said Beale, adding that the vast majority of Macon County residents are Christians.
Carson also said that commissioners are entitled to pray according to the faith held by the majority in the community.
“I think there are a lot of good Christian people in our county that put us in office, and they expect us to do our jobs with some kind of leadership other than ourselves,” Carson said.
Swain Commissioner Chairman Glenn Jones agreed many constituents would be upset if they could no longer say Jesus Christ in their prayers. At the same time, Jones isn’t as eager as Monteith and Carson to defy a court ruling.
“I would say we are on a wait and see thing right now until the judge makes a ruling,” Jones said. “We would have to have a commissioner’s meeting and discuss it.”
Technically, federal case precedent dating to 2004 already bans references to Jesus Christ during prayers at county commissioners meetings in North Carolina. But many counties have carried on unfazed.
The current lawsuit, being waged in Winston-Salem, specifically challenges the practice of a revolving door of pastors from the community being invited to give the invocations. The same practice is used in Macon County. But Beale said unless a court case landed on his own doorstep, he has no intention of changing course.
“Until we see that in Macon County, we will continue having our prayer,” said Beale.
Macon County Commissioner Bob Simpson doesn’t want to tell pastors who come to their meeting not to say the word “Jesus.” But if the choice came down to no prayer at all, he said he would compromise.
Simpson said he could see how those of other faiths might be offended, yet added that he would only change the practice if forced to.
“I’d rather not take the prayer out of the meeting,” said Simpson. “There may have to be a test case to make us stop it.”
While a federal court ruling — both the one on the books and the one still pending — can set precedent, they lack an enforcement mechanism. Counties could only be forced to comply if a lawsuit was waged against them directly.
“They can’t necessarily send an army out to enforce the rulings,” said Todd Collins, assistant professor of public law at Western Carolina University.
Many places in the South refused to comply with Supreme Court rulings to end segregation in the schools, requiring military enforcement in a few rare cases, he pointed out. But in most counties, legal cases were brought to bring the force of federal case precedent to bear.
“There, it did take groups challenging each individual school system,” Collins said.
It may take that kind of grassroots movement to change prayer before meetings in Western North Carolina, Collins said. In an area that is conservative and where religion plays a large role in many people’s lives, the process could take a long time, Collins added.
While an outside group like the American Civil Liberties Union could fund such lawsuits, the organization waits in the wings until it finds a county or city residents willing to affix their name to the complaint.
Jones said that is always a chance that could happen, thus his more cautionary stance despite his personal convictions.
“If they are wanting to, they will find a way to do it,” Jones said of ACLU. “There is nobody immune from it regardless of what county you are in.”
While some elected leaders in Macon and Swain pledge to keep praying out loud in Jesus Christ’s name, commissioners in Haywood County say they will alter their language to comply.
“We will follow the ruling. I don’t feel like being defiant,” said Kirk Kirkpatrick, chairman of the Haywood County commissioners.
Commissioner Mark Swanger said the county can’t pick and choose which laws it will follow.
“Not just in this matter but in any matter that is finalized in the court, we have an obligation to follow the law,” Swanger said.
To do otherwise would open the county to a lawsuit, he said.
“No matter what the issue is, if you do something the courts say you should not do, you are creating liability for taxpayers,” Swanger said.
The litmus test, as Swanger understands it, is anything that has “the appearance of promoting one religion over another.” Praying simply to God seems to solve the conundrum, he said.
“If a Jewish person and a Christian said the same exact prayer to God, you couldn’t tell which one was Christian and which one was Jewish unless one said Jesus,” Swanger said.
In Haywood County, three of the five commissioners take turns giving the invocation. Two of those three already avoid direct references to Jesus Christ.
Both Kirkpatrick and Commissioner Bill Upton open their prayers with “Dear Heavenly Father.” They end with “in your name we pray.” It clearly refers to a very specific God, but they don’t expressly say “Jesus.”
“I believe in my faith, but I am not going to use my position in government to impose it on other people,” Kirkpatrick said. “I don’t know that we should impose one religion.”
While those who support prayer in public settings often point to the long-standing practice by U.S. Congress, Kirkpatrick said Congressional prayers avoid a reference to one particular faith.
“They keep that prayer fairly general and don’t refer to Jesus Christ. That’s where people get into trouble,” Kirkpatrick said. As a lawyer, Kirkpatrick has sat through enough Constitutional law classes to know where that thin grey line falls.
But for Haywood Commissioner Kevin Ensley, he can’t imagine praying without the closing words “in Jesus’ name.”
“My personal belief is if you don’t pray in Jesus’ name your prayer isn’t heard,” Ensley said. “I am not saying that if somebody is Jewish and they don’t pray to Jesus, God doesn’t hear it, but that’s just the way I was taught.”
It is so intrinsic to his prayers, he would rather not say a prayer out loud at all than be barred from offering the prayer in Jesus’ name.
When Ensley was elected to the board in 2002, the commissioners didn’t do an invocation. It was one of the first suggestions he made and within a couple of months of taking office, he had restarted the tradition of a prayer before Haywood County meetings.
One reason Haywood commissioners may be treading more cautiously than their neighbors is the still fresh memory of a lawsuit over the Ten Commandments posted in the county’s historic courtroom. A local atheist, Richard Suhre, sued the county over a tablet of the Ten Commandments that appear alongside Lady Justice in the courtroom. The case lasted several years, and several lower courts ruled in the county’s favor. The case was slated to be heard by the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals, but Suhre died before the case was heard, effectively ending the challenge after the county spent hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal fees.
Kirkpatrick said the choice will ultimately be up to a particular commissioner what words to use when it’s his turn to give the prayer. Commissioners said they had not discussed the issue with one another yet. But Kirkpatrick doubted that Ensley would insist on praying in a way that put the county at risk.
“I think Kevin will step aside and say ‘You guys do it,’” Kirkpatrick said.
Ensley indeed said he would bow out from the rotation if he couldn’t pray in Jesus’ name.
“If you don’t want me to say that, don’t call on me to pray,” Ensley said.
Jackson is one of the few Western North Carolina counties that does not begin commissioner meetings with prayers. Their reasons aren’t to avoid a legal quagmire, but due to a strong belief in the separation of church and state, said Jackson County Commissioner Chairman Brian McMahan, who himself is a Southern Baptist and attends church on a regular basis.
“When I go to the commissioner meetings, we are there to conduct county business,” said McMahan. “That doesn’t mean I don’t pray. I do that on my own.”