A week after Mayor Jennifer Roberts said the City Council would stop a traditional prayer before meetings, council members brought it back at Monday’s meeting, with Republican Kenny Smith asking “our Heavenly father” to “bestow your wisdom to help each of us look inward so that we can act outward.”
City Attorney Bob Hagemann told the council’s Governance and Accountability committee earlier in the day that he believed the city’s invocation is constitutional, but he offered some suggestions to give the city extra protection.
Though council members don’t attempt to convert anyone, Hagemann reminded them that they should not “proselytize or denigrate other faiths or non-believers.” He said the city should not ask the audience to join in a prayer, and if a council member gives the prayer while standing, he or she should not ask or direct the audience to stand.
“We don’t want someone in the audience to feel they are being coerced,” Hagemann said. “It’s better not to ask the audience to join you in prayer – it sounds like an order.”
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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, Hagemann has been reviewing the case and Roberts has been questioning whether the city should continue the public prayers.
At last week’s meeting, council members were discussing in closed session an unrelated lawsuit. They were meeting in a separate room from the main council chamber.
After that closed session, Roberts raised the issue of the council prayers and whether they should continue. The mayor then asked 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 or that they should stop.
In emails to council members and Roberts Monday last week, Hagemann said a prayer would be OK.
“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.”
Rowan Commissioners voted Monday night to appeal their case to the U.S. Supreme Court, according to the Salisbury Post.
At the start of Monday’s meeting, Roberts said that last week “there was confusion about what council had decided and what our attorney had recommended.”
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. There hasn’t been a prayer specifically about a religion such as Islam or Buddhism in at least a decade.
Democrat Gregg Phipps was scheduled to give the invocation at last week’s meeting. Phipps couldn’t attend Monday’s meeting, so Smith was next in line to give the invocation.
Smith is the Republican candidate for mayor. He is running against Mayor Pro Tem Vi Lyles, who defeated Roberts in the Democratic primary Sept. 12.