March 2023 Church & State Magazine - March 2023

N.C. County Board Alters Prayer Practice After Receiving AU Letter


Members of the Beauford County Board of Commissioners in North Carolina altered the county’s practice on prayers before meetings after receiving a letter from Americans United.

 The board had followed a practice of opening its meetings with a Christian prayer delivered by one its members. Additionally, the board chair routinely asked the audience to stand for this prayer. 

In a Jan. 19 letter to the board, AU Staff Attorney Ian Smith wrote, “The Board of Commissioners exists to represent all citizens of Beaufort County, regardless of faith or belief. The practice of county officials composing and reciting official prayers sends the message that nonbelievers and adherents of faiths that do not wish to participate in the Board’s prayers are not accepted members of the community and pressuring the audience to stand for the prayer coerces them to participate in the Board’s religious activities.”

AU’s letter noted that the U.S. Supreme Court has permitted legislative prayer in some contexts but not prayer led by government officials. 

“When a prayer is delivered by a member of the clergy, citizens may understand it to reflect the views of the clergymember, not the government,” wrote Smith. “But prayer led by a lawmaker suggests that the government itself is promoting the religious views articulated in the prayer.”

During its Feb. 6 meeting, the board invited a Christian minister to open the session with a prayer, and attendees were not told to stand. Members indicated that they would rely on clergy-led prayers going forward.

Commissioner Jerry Langley made it clear he was not happy with the way things transpired. Langley said anyone who disagreed with the prayer practice should have addressed the board rather than tell Americans United, reported the Washington Daily News. 

“Anybody who has a problem with the commissioners’ praying they should have stepped there to that podium,” Langley said. “It just bothers me that people who have absolutely, positively nothing to do with Beaufort County is (sic) now trying to tell us how we should conduct ourselves.”

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