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Union County could face lawsuit over Christian prayers at meetings

Another Charlotte-area county is staring at a possible lawsuit because county commissioners frequently invoke Jesus’ name during prayers that open public meetings.

On Friday afternoon, Wisconsin-based Freedom from Religion Foundation emailed a letter to Union County renewing objections to what it called unconstitutional sectarian prayers, and urged the board to remove prayers from its meetings.

The nonprofit foundation never received a response from the county on its initial letter, from February, where the group noted it had received a complaint from a local resident about the prayers.

“This stays on our radar,” said Patrick Elliott, staff attorney for the group. “If they do not change (in the coming months) we are considering filing a lawsuit.”

He cited a 2011 U.S. Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals ruling against Forsyth County, which held that sectarian prayers violated the Constitution. “It is troubling that the (Union) board has willfully continued this illegal practice,” Elliott wrote Friday.

Union County board Chair Jerry Simpson said commissioners take turn offering the invocation or designating some to do it for them, such as a local pastor. Spirituality is a part of the lives of a huge majority of county residents, he said, and they appreciate that commissioners make prayer a part of their meeting.

“I’m not aware of anybody in Wisconsin who voted for me,” Simpson added.

At a March meeting, Commissioner Jonathan Thomas praised local churches and others for their strong support after word of the foundation’s concerns. He had opened that meeting with an invocation that concluded with, “in Jesus’ name, amen.”

In an interview, Thomas said the threat of a lawsuit is a real concern.

He said he wasn’t trying to be disrespectful or send a message to the foundation with the invocation. But, he added, “Nobody tells me how to pray.”

Thomas said Union County residents knew his values, and those of his fellow commissioners, when they voted them into office. If they don’t like those values, he said, they can make changes on Election Day.

Thomas said he was shocked the county had to deal with criticism over the invocation, especially in a community where “most people on a Sunday morning are in some type of Christian setting.”

Thomas suggested that people who feel uncomfortable with the invocation can wait to enter the meeting room until after the prayer is over, or if they are watching from home, turn down the volume on the TV or computer.

In the Friday email, Elliott stated it was immaterial how many residents wanted the board to continue sectarian prayers. Commissioners could pray outside of the meetings, he said, “without abusing their civil offices to impose personal religious views and rituals upon citizens.”

One of the churches that supported the board, Ebenezer Baptist in Indian Trail, disagreed. Its pastor, the Rev. Tim Rogers, said freedom of religion means commissioners should be able to pray to whatever faith they believe in.

“If he prays to Allah, let him pray to Allah. If he prays to the one true God, let him pray to Jesus,” Rogers said, adding, “Baptists have always stood for the freedom of religion.”

‘The promise of public neutrality’

Controversies over public prayer have percolated across North Carolina for several years.

In 2011, the federal appeals court ruled that prayers to Jesus at Forsyth County meetings violated the First Amendment. “Sectarian prayers…(run) afoul of the promise of public neutrality among faiths that resides at the heart of the First Amendment’s religion clauses,” the court majority wrote.

The U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear the county’s appeal last year.

In March 2012, Kannapolis City Council members opted to start their meetings with silent prayer instead of praying aloud after the Wisconsin foundation wrote them about the issue. At the time, City Manager Mike Legg told the Salisbury Post, “The law is pretty clear, and that doesn’t paint a good outcome (for the city) if it were to be challenged.”

On its website, the foundation describes itself as “an umbrella for those who are free from religion” and committed to separation of church and state. Co-President Dan Barker has authored several books, including, “Godless: How an Evangelical Preacher Became One of America’s Leading Atheists.”

And two months ago, the American Civil Liberties Union helped Rowan County residents sue the county to try to stop commissioners from opening meetings with Christian prayers.

Two Rowan County state legislators then made national headlines with a resolution stating that North Carolina, its counties and municipalities have the right to establish an official religion. The plan died quickly in the legislature.

Bell: 704-358-5696
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