Mayor Jennifer Roberts and Charlotte City Council may be ending a long-standing tradition of starting its meetings with a prayer.
On Monday, Roberts told the audience that they had been in a meeting with attorneys to discuss several recent court cases and the separation of church and state before the meeting. Then, instead of starting with the typical prayer that rotates between council members, City Council went straight into the Pledge of Allegiance.
“We are not going to have an invocation this evening,” Roberts said. “We are going to change the way that we conduct it on the expert advice of our attorney with the concern over freedom of religion, separation of church and state and some recent court rulings.”
This summer, the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that Rowan County commissioners couldn’t open meetings with explicitly sectarian prayers from just one faith. Since that decision, City Attorney Bob Hagemann has been reviewing the case and Roberts has been questioning whether the city should continue the public prayers.
It’s unclear who made the decision to stop the prayer, which was scheduled to be given by council member Greg Phipps.
Before the meeting, council members were discussing in closed session the city’s lawsuit against former fire investigator Crystal Eschert. Council members were meeting in a separate room from the main council chamber.
After that closed session on the Eschert case, Roberts brought up the issue of the council prayers and whether they should continue, according to a council member who watched the conversation. The mayor then asked City Attorney Bob Hagemann whether the prayers should be discontinued. Hagemann told the mayor that would be a safe decision, but he did not tell the mayor or council they were in legal jeopardy for continuing the prayer and that they should stop.
Hagemann declined to comment Monday night on the issue.
In emails to council members and Roberts Monday night, Hagemann said he had been contacted by the media about the mayor’s announcement.
“Just to be clear, I have not concluded and have not advised that the Council’s invocation practice is unconstitutional. And I did not advise you to end the practice,” he wrote. “In light of the Fourth Circuit’s decision in the Rowan County case described below, there clearly are legal risks with invocation practices. Obviously, as I stated to you tonight, not providing invocations is 100% legally safe. But the Fourth Circuit did not hold that invocations at the beginning of a county commission or city council meeting are per se unconstitutional.”
On Tuesday morning, Roberts sent council members an e-mail about the issue.
“Last night at the open portion of our dinner meeting the Council agreed to end the invocation for our meetings, based on Bob Hagemann's advice and email regarding recent 4th Circuit decisions,” Roberts wrote. “It appears that there is now some confusion about the unanimous head nods and agreement at our meeting. Although no one present objected at the time, I have heard public statements by some that now do object.”
Roberts said she would refer the issue to the council’s Governance and Accountability Committee. She said the committee can make a recommendation to “re-instate some form of invocation or not, and then the council can vote.”
But several council members said Tuesday that they didn’t believe their silence was an endorsement of the mayor’s plan to end the invocation.
In the Rowan case, the court found that 97 percent of the county’s prayers were about Christianity.
“The principle at stake here may be a profound one, but it is also simple,” Judge Harvie Wilkinson of Virginia wrote. “The Establishment Clause does not permit a seat of government to wrap itself in a single faith.”
Rowan County, he said, “elevated one religion above all others and aligned itself with that faith. It need not be so. … The desire of this good county for prayer at the opening of its public sessions can be realized in many ways that further both religious exercise and religious tolerance.”
Charlotte City Council typically starts its meetings with a prayer by one of the council members. The prayers vary from one council member to another, sometimes including a poem, literary passage or more traditional prayer.
The prayers often refer only to God. Sometimes they reference Jesus Christ specifically. There hasn’t been a prayer specifically about a religion such as Islam or Buddhism in at least a decade.
There has not been a recent public challenge to the city’s practice of starting meetings with a prayer.
Roberts has a little more than two months remaining as the city’s mayor.
She finished second in the Democratic primary last week to Mayor Pro Tem Vi Lyles. Lyles will face Republican Kenny Smith in the November general election.