Religion and its place in local government have once again arisen as issues in North Carolina. This means that many Christians — especially those holding elected office — are having to search for a balance between their personal prayer practices and their public duty to uphold the state and federal constitutions.
The current controversy arose in Winston-Salem when two Forsyth County residents objected to the prayer used to start county board meetings. Past rulings have supported the right to pray but held that those prayers must be general in nature, that they couldn’t use words like “Christ” or “Jesus” but could reference “God” or the “Almighty.”
This is a complicated issue, but one that does need to be dealt with. Personally, I’ve always been more bemused than fired up about this controversy.
First, the case law on this is quite clear, as noted above. If you want to follow the letter of the law, prayer guidelines for public meetings are pretty clear. End of discussion.
On the other hand, I also wonder why people care about how others pray, whether in public or elsewhere. If some elected official somewhere wants to say a prayer that satisfies his own religious yearnings, my libertarian instincts say let that person have at it — as long as they aren’t using their elected position as a pulpit. I don’t care about other people’s religious beliefs, and I certainly don’t want to inhibit or influence those beliefs. Doesn’t interest me.
The problem gets more complicated when those who feel compelled to offer prayers that clearly violate court rulings begin talking about their belief that this is a Christian nation and that we are taking religion too far out of public life. These two issues — whether society is less moral than in the past and whether we allow Christianity to permeate public life — are not related.
Unfortunately, many don’t believe that. One county commissioner we interviewed for last week’s cover story on this issue said as much: “It’s just the way I was raised. We’re talking religion out of everything. It’s made a difference in the world as we see it today ... since they took it out of schools, our morals started going downhill,” said Macon County Commissioner Bob Simpson.
Here’s a true story from a few years ago, an example that many in Haywood County may remember.
A local citizen who was very active in civic affairs was Jewish. He was a member of a civic club that started each meeting with a prayer. Just like the Forsyth County case, that prayer almost always ended with something like “in Jesus’ name we pray,” or another reference to Christ.
This gentleman asked discretely that the prayer exclude references to Jesus. He wanted to remain active in the club and was uncomfortable with the prayer. In the end, he left the group because some members would not alter their prayer habits.
This was a civic group and not an official government body, but it’s that kind of intransigence that leads to many of the problems that arise over this issue. The lone Jewish member of the group wanted his beliefs respected, and he thought the club could do so and still respect their own religious beliefs. Some of the Christians in the group felt otherwise, and so a split occurred.
These heartfelt beliefs are why this issue is so controversial and why, more than 220 years after our Constitution was ratified, individuals in this country are still grappling with religion and its place in government and public life.
In other parts of the world, the difference of opinion that divided that community club could have led to bloodshed. That doesn’t happen very often here, and that speaks to the very American trait of taking a long time to let issues work themselves out through government, the courts and society. This allows some important issues to hang around too long (like legal racism), but it also gives people time to adjust to change as we accept new norms.
I suspect the Forsyth County case is going to put new pressures on elected officials to abide by the letter of the law, and that’s a good thing. As one county commissioner pointed out in last week’s story, the Constitution is clear. It was written so that minority viewpoints are protected. That is what has made this country the bastion of freedom it has become, and I for one am proud of that tradition.
This crux of the debate comes down to this: where is the proper place for religion? Is it necessary — or legal — to make religious declarations in the public arena, or is religion’s proper sphere in the home, in the church and in the heart?
Several county commissioners in our region, I think, hit it right on the mark. Two of those are Haywood County Commissioners Kevin Ensley and Kirk Kirkpatrick.
Ensley’s prayers to open board meetings, according to most court rulings, would not meet constitutional muster. Although he feels he should be able to pray, here’s his answer to any mandate about what he can and can’t say: “If you don’t want me to say that, don’t call on me to pray.” In other words, his religion is much more important to him than publicly uttering a prayer he doesn’t believe, so he’ll just keep his faith to himself and abide by the law.
Kirkpatrick had this to say: “I believe in my faith, but I am not going to use my position in government to impose it on other people.” That’s a very important part of this discussion, because government leaders should not be in the business of endorsing one religion over another. That’s not what the founders had in mind.
And finally, Jackson County Commissioner Chairman Brian McMahan summed up this issue very nicely, at least according to my ideas about religion and government. McMahan feels strongly that the two don’t mix, and Jackson is one of the few counties in Western North Carolina that doesn’t start their meetings with a prayer. However, McMahan is also a devout Southern Baptist who regularly attends church: “When I go to the commissioner meetings, we are there to conduct county business. That doesn’t mean I don’t pray. I do that on my own.”