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Prayer as part of government meetings has a long — and often contentious — history in this country, and a recent court ruling on the issue certainly won’t settle this debate.

This case does, however, add one more brick to the legal foundation that’s been built by respected judges since this country’s inception: prayer by those in official capacities is fine, but can’t trumpet your specific sectarian religious beliefs at the expense of those who may have a different faith.

Praying in public has never been something politicians in Swain County have shied away from and it’s unlikely the recent court ruling will change that ritual anytime soon.

Within recent memory, public prayer hasn’t been part of official meetings of the Jackson County or Sylva boards of commissioners.

With all the controversy and uncertainty about the right and wrong way to do it, the town and county governments in Macon County err on the side of caution when it comes to praying at meetings.

Just days after an important ruling from the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals on legislator-led prayer, Haywood County and its municipalities quickly moved to comply with the specifics of the ruling, but fell dramatically short in complying with the general principles that underlie the separation between church and state in American Government.

Public prayer in government has long been a contentious issue, but a recent court ruling has North Carolina municipalities scrambling to comply with both the letter and the spirit of the law while awaiting the challenges and changes that will inevitably come.

“I think towns that have practices similar to Rowan County will have to keep an eye on how the case progresses,” said William Morgan, Canton’s town attorney for the past three years.

Religion and public schools have never been a black and white matter anywhere in the U.S., but the shades of grey can be even more complicated in the Bible belt.

By Peggy Manning • Correspondent

Every Friday morning, a small group of mothers meet in Bryson City to pray for students, teachers and school administrators. Called Moms in Prayer, the sessions last about an hour and focus on issues participants are concerned about in the school system, said organizer Brona Winchester.

“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.

 

In your heart, not on your sleeve

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?

(Scott McLeod can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.)

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.”

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