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Rowan commissioners don’t give in, open with prayer

SALISBURY Rowan County commissioners, facing the prospect of a long and costly legal battle with the American Civil Liberties Union, held their ground Monday and opened their meeting with a prayer that included the words “personal Lord and Savior, Jesus.”

Later in the meeting, the board voted unanimously to hire legal defense for a battle against the ACLU.

Monday’s prayer opened a meeting that packed the chambers in the Rowan County Administration Building.

Many of those at the meeting said they were supporting commissioners, who were sued in federal court last week by the ACLU. The suit said Rowan officials are violating the First and 14th amendments by starting meetings with sectarian prayer.

Craig Pierce, vice chair of the board, opened a meeting late Monday afternoon with the prayer that mentioned “Lord and Savior.”

Commissioners then went into a closed 90-minute session, where they met with attorney Bryce Neier, who supported Forsyth County commissioners in their unsuccessful and lengthy battle with the ACLU over the prayer issue. Neier also is a volunteer with the Alliance Defending Freedom, which offers legal defense in such cases.

The board returned to open session shortly after 6 p.m., and Neier was among the two dozen speakers during the public comment session of the meeting.

According to meeting minutes, Neier said, “You have First Amendment rights. You do have the right to associate and freedom of religious expression – and sometimes the courts are right, and sometimes the courts are wrong.”

Neier might have been referring to a 5-1/2-year fight between Forsyth County commissioners and the ACLU – a battle that ended in January 2012, when the U.S. Supreme Court refused to consider commissioners’ appeal of a lower court ruling in favor of the ACLU. That ruling forbids Forsyth County commissioners from opening meetings with sectarian prayer.

Some published estimates say Forsyth County spent about $250,000 in that legal fight.

The ACLU sued Rowan commissioners in U.S. District Court on behalf of three county residents. The lawsuit came about a year after the ACLU sent a letter to commissioners asking them to stop the practice of opening meetings with what the ACLU said was “sectarian prayer.”

At Monday night’s meeting, a number of residents supported county commissioners.

“Stand fast … and know that there are those that are behind you, and there are those that will support you financially,” resident Jason Josey said, according to the Observer’s news partner, WCNC-TV.

But there were a few at the meeting who urged commissioners to adhere to the ACLU’s request.

WCNC reported that resident John Burke told commissioners, “When you offer a prayer as public officials, you should be offering it for all 135,000 people – not just for the ones that are of your particular tradition, the Protestant tradition.”

During the weekend, the Rev. Bill Godair of Cornerstone Church in Salisbury publicly offered to donate $10,000 to county commissioners to help pay legal fees in the fight with the ACLU. Godair was at Monday’s meeting and reaffirmed his offer.

WCNC-TV contributed

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