Charlotte mayor cancels prayer before a public meeting. Can she do that?
Charlotte’s two candidates for mayor both support bringing back a prayer or invocation before City Council meetings after current Mayor Jennifer Roberts stopped the practice earlier this week.
Vi Lyles, who defeated Roberts in the Democratic primary last week, wrote on Facebook that the city can have prayers of many religions.
“The issue of prayer to open the City Council meetings can be both respectful of the diversity of our beliefs in how we practice our religions – Christian, Muslim, Jewish, Hindi and others – as well as for those who do not practice or believe in religion by following the tenets of the constitution and guidance from the Courts,” she wrote. “Prayer is allowed and opening our meeting with prayer can be an expression of our democracy – so I believe the City Council should continue to allow for the expression of prayer based on the guidance of the law.”
Lyles said the city shouldn’t require people to participate and that the city allow prayers of “many faiths.”
City Council member Kenny Smith, the Republican mayoral candidate, said he wants to bring back prayers.
“If you look at the nature of our invocations, we have members from different faiths and denominations,” he said. “These are often a time of quiet reflection that is non-political. It allows us to have a time of reflection before we take on weighty issues.”
Roberts said the issue should be discussed Monday afternoon by the council’s Governance and Accountability Committee, of which Smith and Lyles are members. Smith said he believes the committee will OK bringing prayers back for the council’s regular meeting Monday night.
Earlier this week, at Monday’s meeting, Roberts told the audience the meeting would not start with a prayer.
“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.”
She made the announcement six days after losing the primary to Lyles.
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.
Before Monday’s council meeting, council members and Roberts were holding a closed session on the Crystal Eschert whistleblower lawsuit against the city.
After that closed session, Roberts brought up 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 and that they should stop.
In emails to council members and Roberts Monday night, Hagemann said he had never recommended the city stop the pre-meeting prayer.
“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 percent 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.”
In an interview with WFAE Tuesday, Roberts said she remembered Hagemann recommending the city stop. But in hindsight, she said she might have been confused.
“I don't remember his exact words, but something like, ‘It might be wise just to avoid having an invocation,’ ” Roberts told the radio station. “I can't remember if he said or someone said it and he nodded. Again, my recollection is that it was his advice.”
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 the council’s Governance and Accountability Committee can make a recommendation to “re-instate some form of invocation or not, and then the council can vote.”
Council member Dimple Ajmera, who is running for an at-large seat, said Tuesday she doesn’t have an opinion on the issue. She said she has to wait until the committee discusses it.
One of the mayor’s jobs is running council meetings, but she mayor doesn’t have ultimate control of how a meeting is run and what’s on the agenda. City Manager Marcus Jones could place an item on the agenda, including a prayer. Council members could also vote to re-instate prayer even before it’s discussed by a committee.