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.”
Haywood more tempered
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.”