May 26, 2010

Some residents of Henderson County, N.C., seem determined to fight unnecessary battles.

According to news reports, the Henderson County Commission held a meeting last night to hear from the community and take a final vote on whether its monthly meetings should continue to open with sectarian invocations.

The commissioners wanted to address the issue in light of a federal court decision in February that struck down another North Carolina county’s policy of starting board meetings with sectarian prayers.

U.S. District Judge James A. Beaty held that Forsyth County’s usual preference for Christian prayers violated the constitutional separation of church and state.

“[T]he prayers offered in the implementation of the Policy here,” he wrote in Joyner v. Forsyth County, “did not reflect diversity and inclusiveness, and instead were divisive and had the effect of affiliating the Government with one particular belief.”

The decision was clear, easy to understand and seemingly easy to follow. Yet the Henderson County Commission unanimously voted to continue its sectarian prayer policy anyway. Commissioners were apparently persuaded by the citizens who claimed – inaccurately – that this is a Christian nation and that stopping the prayers would infringe on their religious liberty.

“I feel like my faith is being persecuted,” said Tammy Summey, a resident who provided testimony. “I don’t care how anyone else wants to pray, but please don’t take away my Jesus.”

Another man said he was deeply troubled by the fact the board could even consider doing away with the Christian prayers before meetings.

“Those who believe in the name of God have a right to pray to that God before a meeting,” resident Larry Marshall said. “When you tell a person how to pray and when they can pray, you are interfering with their conscience.”

Because of “advice” such as this, the commission has decided to keep the status quo. And commissioners were frank about their motives.

According to the Times-News, Commissioner Larry Young said that he prays every day and asks Jesus Christ to help him in his decision-making for the county.

“I move to uphold prayer at our meetings,” he said. “This is the way Jesus wants me to go.”

Commission Vice Chair Mark Williams took a similar stance.

“Over the years, I have been called upon to give the prayer,” he said. “Each and every time I pray will be in the name of Jesus Christ. I do that because that's my faith, doing anything else would be going against my personal beliefs.”

But Commissioner Williams doesn’t seem to understand that other Henderson County residents have their beliefs too, and giving his faith the appearance of being the official county religion is wrong.

I can’t say that was a wise decision, nor does it make much sense to follow suggestions from a few devout but misguided citizens, rather than the law.

Commissioner Chuck McGrady told the board that the Forsyth decision has no jurisdiction in Henderson County, so they don’t need to follow it.

Regardless if that is true, he seems to forget that Henderson County still falls under the jurisdiction of the Constitution, which makes it clear that government cannot favor one particular religious belief over others, or religion over non-religion. That’s the only way to ensure that Americans from all faith backgrounds, and none, feel included in their communities.

The Forsyth decision has been appealed to the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, and Americans United is serving as co-counsel with the American Civil Liberties Union to defend Judge Beaty’s decision. If the appeals court upholds the district court’s opinion, there is no question it will be binding on Henderson County, as well.

In the meantime, those who live in western North Carolina can make your voices heard on this issue. The Western North Carolina Chapter of Americans United and the Interfaith Ministerial Association of Henderson County are sponsoring a public forum on prayer at government meetings.

The event will be held at Hendersonville Library (Kaplan Auditorium) on Thursday, June 3 from 7 to 9 p.m.  Speakers will include Dr. William Campbell, Pastor of the First Presbyterian Church, Hendersonville; Dr. Sheldon Marne, Podiatrist in Hendersonville; and the Rev. Phillip Allen, President of WNC Chapter of Americans United. Free and open to the public.

For more information, email