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Union commissioners avoid Jesus in prayer

MONROE Union County commissioners began their meeting Monday night with their usual prayer, but did not mention Jesus this time.

Some residents, however, urged the board to keep using Christian prayers.

It was the board’s first meeting since Friday, when a Wisconsin nonprofit repeated its call for the county to stop using sectarian prayers at its meetings. A lawyer with the Freedom From Religion Foundation said the group is contemplating a lawsuit if county commissioners do not end the practice.

Commissioner Frank Aikmus delivered the invocation “in the name of the most holy, amen.”

Before the meeting, board Chairman Jerry Simpson said the county is aware that the courts deem nonsectarian prayer acceptable.

“That is what we are making an effort to do,” he said. “But I don’t specify to anyone how to pray.”

During public comments, Mineral Springs council member Janet Critz said the board should continue with Christian prayers no matter the cost. The nation was founded on Christian principles, she said, referring to Patrick Henry’s statements on the issue. Her comments were met with applause from the crowd.

Commissioners have frequently used Jesus’ name during the invocation at the start of their meetings. Board members take turns giving the invocation or can designate someone to deliver it.

Simpson said the board has no plans to adopt a formal policy. He also said the county was not going to respond to the foundation’s latest email.

Vice Chairman Todd Johnson said before the meeting he is “walking a fine line” between being the person residents elected and not exposing taxpayers to financial harm that could come from defending a lawsuit.

“We’re in a tough situation here,” Johnson said. “We’ve got citizens who want us to continue doing (the prayers) as we’ve been doing for a long time. … And we’ve got an organization from a (different state) telling us to do it another way.”

In 2011 the U.S. Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals, ruling against Forsyth County, held that singling out a specific religion while praying at a public meeting violated the Constitution.

The foundation contacted Union County in February, saying a local resident had complained. The foundation asked the county to comply with the law and drop sectarian prayers or discontinue all prayers, stating, “Prayer at government meetings is unnecessary, inappropriate and divisive.”

The group didn’t receive a response, and in its follow-up email and letter last week, foundation staff attorney Patrick Elliott renewed the foundation’s objections. “It is troubling the board has willfully continued this illegal practice,” he wrote.

In the letter, he also criticized Johnson, stating that at the March 4 meeting, he “abused the prayer opportunity to share his views on the ‘freedom of speech.’ ”

At the meeting, Johnson said, “Lord, I also pray that those foreign and domestic entities that wish to take that freedom (of speech) away from us, be with them. Lord, help them understand that the freedom of speech transcends all opinions, even when we do not agree.”

Johnson chuckled and said, “That was probably the most nonsectarian prayer I gave in my life.”

The prayer issue has also vexed other North Carolina governmental boards.

Rowan County commissioners are facing a lawsuit the American Civil Liberties Union helped file that seeks to stop them from starting meetings with Christian prayers. And last year, Kannapolis City Council members decided to go to a silent prayer at their meetings after the Wisconsin foundation raised questions about their activities.

Bell: 704-358-5696
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