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Christians cling to one of last vestiges of prayer in public life

They haven’t gone quietly, and they haven’t gone quickly, but Christians are losing the battle over prayer in public life.

Courts have banned public displays of the Ten Commandments in a religious context. School prayer has been demoted to a moment of silence. Prayers are no longer trumpeted from loudspeakers at the start of high school football games. Nativity scenes that once adorned courthouse lawns at Christmas have been supplanted by generic displays of candy canes. The nonsectarian rallying cry even threatened to restore the Pledge of Allegiance to its original version by stripping the words “under God.”

But in Western North Carolina, one vestige of religion in the public sphere still stands strong. Christian prayers before government meetings continue to thrive in Haywood, Macon and Swain counties.

Federal court precedent already on the books stipulates that commissioners avoid references to Jesus Christ in their prayers at meetings, and a pending ruling in a Forsyth County case (see “Latest prayer case rekindles controversy”) would strengthen that requirement. The controversial court case has ignited a passionate philosophical debate.


Minority rights

Swain County Commissioner David Monteith doesn’t see how it is possible to pray to God but not Jesus.

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“That is a bunch of baloney,” Monteith said.

Monteith feels strongly that his prayers would be compromised if he could not offer them in Jesus’s name.

“If a man put a gun to my head and said I cannot say a prayer and worship Jesus Christ, I would say go ahead and pull the trigger,” Monteith said.

Those of other faiths say they are excluded when prayers are cemented in Christ’s name, however. Zvi Altman, a spiritual leader at Mountain Synagogue in Franklin, said he is sensitive to that whenever he leads a public prayer.

“When I offer a public invocation, I am mindful that I am praying on behalf of the entire community, and not just for myself or my faith community,” said Altman.

Altman said he purposely avoids language that excludes people from those prayers or implies that solely his religion is valid.

“Only Christians pray ‘in Jesus’ name,’” said Altman, adding that many in the Christian majority, especially in the South, do not reflect enough on the prayers.

“They just think, well, we’re not excluding anyone — not the Catholics, or the Methodists, or the Baptists, or the folks at Church of God, or Church of Christ,” said Altman. “But they are excluding Jews, Muslims, Hindus and anyone else who is not a Christian.”

Altman said he prefers to think that those who exclude him in their prayers are not doing so purposefully, just that they haven’t thought carefully about their actions.

“People have to adjust to a way of thinking that is broader and more tolerant,” said Alex Cury, the chair of the Western North Carolina chapter of the ACLU.

“We’re a multicultural country,” said Lu Lewellen, 69, an atheist in Waynesville. “All of these cultures should be respected.”

Lewellen said the prayer is more likely to offend non-Christians with faiths of their own than atheists like herself, however.

“Unlike some other minorities, it’s easy for us to pass,” said Lewellen.

Lianna Constantino, high priestess of the Sylva Hearth Pagan Temple, said prayers that specifically reference Jesus Christ in Haywood, Swain and Macon counties persist simply because the practice has never been challenged. In her opinion, holding any one group above another promotes an atmosphere of intolerance.

In Constantino’s view, it will take a long time for major change, somewhat due to the makeup of WNC society.

“There hasn’t been a lot of diversity like there has been in other parts of the country,” said Constantino. “As a simple fact, this is a pretty homogenous Christian-entrenched society in the South.”

Gibbs Knott, head of the political science department at Western Carolina University, said religion has long been important to life in WNC. That long-established influence means an uphill battle for ending prayers before government meetings.

“Church groups have been organized for political issues in the past,” said Knotts. “I would fully expect that many members of WNC’s religious community would get together and speak out.”

Haywood County Commissioner Kevin Ensley said the context of a local community and its prevailing faith should count for something.

“I think it is part of our community. You have 200 churches in Haywood County,” Ensley said. “If you disregard that fact, then you are catering to the atheists and the other 1 percent.”

Haywood County Commissioner Mark Swanger said as elected leaders, they are obligated to represent all their citizens, including the minority, however small.

“Lots of people would use the argument that the founding fathers were Christian and the vast majority of people in Haywood County are Christian,” Swanger said.

But that is not the premise of Constitutional freedoms, whether it’s freedom of the press or the right to vote.

“These protections are not to protect the majority. They are to protect the minority,” said Swanger, a retired special agent in the FBI.


Competing doctrines

Despite a great divide between the two camps, each side has proudly waved the U.S. Constitution in an effort to justify its standpoint.

At war are the equally compelling values of separation of church and state, and freedom of speech and religion.

“The Constitution should be honored,” said Alex Cury, chair of the WNC chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union. “This is not a Christian nation .... We don’t live in a theocracy.”

Constantino, high priestess of the Sylva Hearth Pagan Temple, said endorsing Christian prayers before meetings blatantly violates a precious partition between religion and state.

“I think it is rude, arrogant and presumptuous to impose any singular religious tradition on a religiously diverse society,” said Constantino.

Opening meetings with a prayer perpetuates the impression that one must be a believer of God to attend, according to 69-year-old Waynesville resident Lewellen.

“They could pray to almighty Zeus as far as I’m concerned,” said Lewellen, a member of WNC Atheists. “Just leave religion out of government. It doesn’t belong there.”

Meanwhile, the same Constitution that mandates separation of church and state also affords for freedom of religion and freedom of speech.

Swain County Commissioner Phil Carson said telling him what he can — or can’t — say in a prayer violates his freedom of speech and freedom of religion.

Carson’s fellow commissioner David Monteith argued that his rights to practice religion are being stripped by outsiders with different beliefs.

“To me, this is people who in the United States want all of our rights and freedoms, but they don’t want to give us our rights,” Monteith said.

Yet the courts aren’t dictating to people how they can pray on their own time or in private settings, said Mary Teslow, a resident of Macon County and president of the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Franklin. Instead, the court rulings are trying to prevent the government from promoting one faith at the exclusion of others.

“We would absolutely support their freedom of religion as an individual, but they are doing the work of the community and that is a shared responsibility. They have every right to have their own religious preference in their own lives, but this is the life of the community,” Teslow said.

Cury pointed out there are plenty of other arenas for prayer in Western North Carolina.

“There are churches all up and down the Main Streets of these towns,” Cury said.

A compromise that Lewellen and Constantino both support is switching to a moment of silence to allow for personal prayer.

“I don’t know any pagan who would have a problem with that,” said Constantino. “That’s a very considerate option.”

With 30 years of experience in interfaith work, Constantino said making everybody happy is not easy but it is possible.


Why pray?

Whether offered by guest pastors or by the commissioner themselves, invocations generally call on God to help the elected leaders make wise decisions, but they often touch other aspects of life as well. Commissioners have thanked the Lord for spring rains that nurtured farmer’s fields, asked for assistance in preventing an H1N1 epidemic, prayed for the safety of soldiers overseas, and asked God to be by the side of a well-known family who had lost a loved one.

At one Haywood commissioners meeting in April where a throng of angry citizens packed the audience, the prayer even thanked God for the democratic process and for living in a country where people were permitted to express their opinions.

“As a Christian, you always want to ask for blessings on all the business that’s going to transpire,” said Macon County Commissioner Ronnie Beale. “Speaking for myself, I have to ask him everyday for his guidance and direction in my life.”

While few could argue against the noble effort by elected leaders to make good decisions on behalf of their constituents, it is possible to do so without elevating their religion above others, said Mary Teslow, a resident of Macon County and president of the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Franklin.

Teslow said commissioners could opt for a “shared affirmation for the work at hand,” a common ritual at her own church where the congregation cuts across several different faiths. Before church meetings, they take a moment to reflect on their shared purpose, center themselves and come together as a community.

“We would be supportive to the commitment of shared work but we would rather it not have such strong Christian language. We would rather it be inclusive, whether from a religious or cultural or gender perspective,” Teslow said.

Teslow would like to see the Macon County commissioners take a similar tact by saying an inclusive prayer rather than one that excludes people of different beliefs.

“We would like the circle widened of the people who participate in our community and public life,” Teslow said.

Commissioners generally initiate the prayer at meetings with “Let us pray” or “Please bow your heads.” It poses a conundrum for Lewellen, an atheist in Waynesville, who doesn’t believe in prayer at all. Whenever she encounters prayers at events, Lewellen said she might stand up but not bow her head or move her lips. If she’s in a bad mood, she might even walk out in protest.

“I don’t believe in supernatural beings, and I don’t pray to them,” said Lewellen.

When Constantino, a pagan, comes across a prayer at a Christian function, she bows her heads respectfully and says amen. But if the prayer occurs in a public setting, Constantino said she is more likely to sit with her head up and her eyes wide open.


Rotating faiths

Macon County’s practice of inviting rotating pastors to give an invocation closely mirrors the prayer patterns in Forsyth County targeted in the latest federal suit. Like in Forsyth, Macon County leaders say the floor is open to pastors of all faiths to take a turn at the podium, but in practice, the prayers are always Christian.

Ronnie Beale, chairman of the Macon County board of commissioners, said the board has never rejected a request to lead the prayer thus far. Furthermore, no one has ever complained.

Beale said the board does not tell the ministers it invites how to pray.

“We don’t set no standards and say this is what you must say or don’t say,” said Beale. “We’re not going to dictate to people how they pray.”

Mary Teslow, a resident of Macon County and president of the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Franklin, said there is an underlying flaw with the notion of rotating guest pastors.

“In theory that would be nice, but in practice that doesn’t work. If you were in Atlanta or New York, you might get a variety, but in functionality, you don’t get that here,” Teslow said.

Those with different religious views are in the minority here and likely wouldn’t feel welcome showing up at a commissioners meeting to share their prayer. In other cases, they might lack an organized church with an official pastor, and could either be overlooked or not pass the vetting process, Teslow said.

In Haywood County, commissioners give the invocation rather than guest pastors, but Commissioner Kevin Ensley said he would support a request to do so from someone of another faith.

“I think if there are other faiths that want to pray during the meeting, I think you have to let them do that. You have to let the minority have their turn, too,” Ensley said.

Like Haywood, Swain commissioners take turns saying the prayers. No one from another faith has ever asked to offer the invocation at a Swain commissioner’s meeting, said Swain Commissioner David Monteith. But if they did, they could make use of the public comment period at the start of a meeting.

“We don’t ban them from standing up and praying to whoever they want to,” Monteith said. “If he signs up for his three minutes, he can say whatever he wants to. He can talk about why the sky is blue if he wants to.”

Still, it could be perceived as a double standard for commissioners to allow Christian prayers as part of the official meeting, but relegate those of other faiths to sign up to speak for up to three minutes during the public comment period.


Founding fathers

Supporters of prayer point to the long-standing practice — one as old as the nation itself — of beginning meetings with an invocation, from town halls to the halls of Congress.

“It’s part of our heritage here that we start every meeting with prayer,” said Swain County Commissioner Phil Carson, adding that the country was founded on the principles of God.

“‘In God We Trust’ is still on the money, even though people are trying really hard to take the principles of God out of our country,” said Carson.

Macon County Commissioner Ronnie Beale argued that Judeo-Christian values shaped the Constitution.

“Our country was founded pretty much by Christians,” said Beale, though he added that the government does allow people of other faiths to practice.

Jackson County Commissioner Brian McMahan holds the opposite view.

According to McMahan, the intent of the country’s founding fathers was to deter any sort of organized, government-sanctioned religion. Since so many had immigrated to the U.S. to escape religious persecution, the leaders wanted to allow everyone to worship in whatever way they pleased.

Leading a prayer at a commissioners meeting that references Allah, Jesus or another specific religious figure would be equivalent to endorsing a particular religion, McMahan said.

“That’s not what we’re there for,” said McMahan. “I think that goes against the U.S. Constitution.”

With the government gradually stripping away vestiges of Christianity from its sphere in recent decades, some are lamenting the loss of Christian principles.

“I think it is part of the downfall of our country,” Carson said. “If we all honored God and loved our neighbor, the world would be a much better place.”

Macon County Commissioner Bob Simpson agreed, stating that he was raised in a culture that respected the practice of saying the Lord’s Prayer before the Pledge of Allegiance every morning at school.

“It’s just the way I was raised,” said Simpson. “We’re taking 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.”

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