Invoking Discord: North Carolina County Grapples With Prayer At Government Meetings

What is the answer to flaps over government-sponsored prayer? How about no official prayers at all?

The issue of prayer before government meetings continues to generate controversy around the country. Yesterday I mentioned a flap in Sevier County, Tenn., where members of the Board of Commissioners routinely open their meetings with the Lord’s Prayer.

Community discord over official prayer is also erupting in Henderson County, N.C., where members of the county commission usually open meetings with Christian invocations. A commissioner often recites the prayer, which ends “in Jesus’ name.”

A rabbi in the area, Philip Bentley, criticized the practice last month. The Hendersonville Times-News reported that Bentley said the commissioners are overlooking the fact that not everyone in the county is a Christian. In response, commission members invited him to give an invocation.

It’s nice that the commission is being exposed to a little religious diversity, but I don’t think a one-time invocation by a rabbi is the answer. Nor would a rotating system of guest clergy work. My guess is that most of them would end up praying in Jesus’ name.

What is the answer? How about no official prayers at all? Commissioners could stick to the job they were hired to do – address matters like taxes, public services and so on and stop presuming to speak on matters of theology on behalf of all of their constituents.

The commissioners could also move to a moment of silence, an option that allows every member to pray or not, as guided by his or her conscience.

I realize dropping official prayers may not be a universally popular idea, but it’s still the right thing to do. By consistently endorsing one religion over another, the commissioners have wandered into a theological thicket. Applying the separation of church and state gives them a way out.

The commissioners had originally planned to discuss the matter during a meeting Monday night. But so many people signed up to talk about it that commission members realized nothing else would get done at the meeting. They now say they’ll hold a special meeting on prayers a later date.

Local resident Janice Parker had planned to speak. She told the Times-News, "I wanted to say if anyone will do the research, they would know that America is a Christian nation. I love living in Henderson County because of the Christian attitude. We need to honor the Lord Jesus Christ.”

I don’t know what “research” Parker has been doing, but it’s not accurate. Nothing in the U.S. Constitution states that we are an officially Christian nation. In fact, the First Amendment guarantees religious liberty for all.

A more clear-eyed view was offered by Phillip Allen, a Baptist minister who serves as president of the Western North Carolina Chapter of Americans United.

“We don’t need to make them feel like second-class citizens if they don’t have the same religious beliefs as us," Allen said. “The county commissioner meeting is secular law, and they are doing the work of the people and should not be meddling in religious affairs.”

Amen to that, Brother Allen!

I understand the desire of the commissioners to solicit input from the community. But at the end of the day, they need to look to the Constitution, not public opinion, when making their decision. They should also realize that several federal courts, including ones that cover North Carolina, have struck down the use of Christian prayers before meetings of government.

Members of the Henderson County Board of Commissioners would do well to read and study these rulings. Then they need to follow them.