Cooperation in a cultural crossroads: Christians, Muslims tear down walls in Cyprus

Among the groups visiting this year’s Folkmoot Festival from other countries is one from a place that isn’t quite a country, but is perhaps a historical microcosm of current geopolitical and spiritual conflict between East and West. 

“It’s mostly sunny weather, two or three months we live in winter, the rest of the year, around 30 or 40 Celsius degrees,” said Burcin Ozqus, a performer with Kyrenia Youth Centre Association. “It’s green most all the time of the year.”

Book examines ‘meanness’ in Christianity

The author of this book is a speech language psychologist and university educator. Now in his sixties, Billy has extensive experience in assisting individuals with intellectual disabilities.  In addition, Ogletree is a Christian writer with an extensive career which includes more than 70 professional articles, chapters and books which speak directly to his primary interest: “the challenging, but cathartic possibilities associated with following Jesus.”

Finding civility in a polarized society

Globalization has made our big world seem much smaller, but it’s also pushed us farther away from one another. 

Instead of focusing on finding common ground with those who have opposing religious or political views, society segregates itself with others who believe the same way they do. 

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Speakers call on interfaith work for social justice
Participants take home renewed faith

Globe-trotting evangelist Billy Graham dies at 99

By Dale Neal • Special to The Smoky Mountain News

Evangelist Billy Graham — a spiritual guide to generations of American evangelicals, a globe-trotting preacher who converted millions to Christianity, and a confidante to presidents — died today at the age of 99.

Graham personally preached the Christian gospel to more people on the planet than any other evangelist in the 2,000 years of Christianity.

Ben-Hur’s long history is captivating

Some authors and critics sniff at best-sellers. I suppose the idea is that a novel appealing to so many thousands may contain vivid action or fascinating characters, but somehow fall below what critics may regard as the “standards of literature.” In the last hundred years in particular, we have seen a shift in favor of the new and revolutionary in literature over more traditional forms of storytelling. Most critics, for example, would regard Faulkner’s The Sound and The Fury as literarily superior to best-selling Erich Marie Remarque’s All Quiet On The Western Front, both of which appeared in 1929.

Flying on faith: Clyde woman finds strength and spirituality in aerial silks

Wearing a leopard-print leotard and suspended 4 feet off the ground in a band of purple silk, Patricia Forgione is in her element.

‘Judge not,’ or so my mom always taught me

“And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by men. I tell you the truth, they have received their reward in full. But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.”

— From the Gospel of Matthew

 

Purveyors of religion have recently been touting the need for elected officials to make public proclamations of their faith, citing examples of martyrs, saints and Jesus himself proclaiming themselves Christians in the face of certain death. Truth be told, equating such life and death drama as being similar to whether a county commissioner makes a specific kind of prayer at a county board meeting is like comparing an earthquake to a hiccup.

For those who haven’t been following this controversy, a recent court ruling in North Carolina has reaffirmed longstanding case law that says praying to Jesus — thereby referring to a specific religion — to open a county board meeting does not pass constitutional muster. Forsythe County commissioners who want to get a better interpretation of what they can and can’t do are challenging the court ruling allowing only a prayer to a generic god. That lawsuit will sort things out, which is a good thing as leaders in many of our western counties are caught in the crosshairs and trying to figure out how to handle this divisive issue.

Perhaps I’ve lost some of my youthful hellfire, but personally I don’t particularly care what kind of prayer opens a public meeting. I wouldn’t care if a Hindu commissioner gave some prayer that satisfied his own spiritual yearning. I don’t care if Christians do the same. As long as the leaders are carrying out their official duties in an ethical, honest and straightforward manner, let them pray to whatever god leads them down that path.

But my personal feelings, and the personal feelings of those giving elected officials a hard time, are irrelevant. More importantly, what happened at a recent Haywood County board meeting points out exactly why we need laws to govern this issue. Here’s what one citizen said: “If the majority of people want public prayer in the name of Jesus, we ought to have it.”

No, we shouldn’t, and that’s exactly the problem. The majority who wants the prayer is a mostly benign group of local citizens who want nothing else than for their leaders to proclaim their faith and pass laws accordingly. As has been pointed out many times, though, we are a religious nation governed by law, not a lawful nation governed by religion.

In Haywood County, Commissioner Mark Swanger has been a school board chairman, a county board chairman and is now a county commissioner. Swanger has very earnest and intelligent views when it comes to the interplay between the public and public servants. He recognizes the danger when the majority believes it can pass any measures that the majority supports, despite what courts — the check and balance on our legislators and our executive branch — have ruled.

“I am very uneasy with anyone telling a commissioner or anyone else what the content of a prayer should be. That’s what the Taliban does,” Swanger told The Asheville Citizen-Times.

 

In your heart, not on your sleeve

I was sitting in church on Ash Wednesday last week when the priest said something that caught me completely off guard. Next to Easter, Ash Wednesday is the best attended of all masses, he said. He didn’t say it outright, but the inference was that some come to get the sign of the cross on their forehead with ashes and then go out into the world for all to see.

The hypocrites — Matthew’s words (see the beginning of this column), not mine — were also at work at the recent county board meeting. No, I’m not questioning the religious beliefs of those who spoke, for it seemed very clear that they had very strong feelings about faith.

What is hypocritical is for anyone to put themselves at the gates of Christiandom and declare that they know what is right when it comes to prayer. Can anyone take seriously those who proclaim that a county official who refuses to pray like they want him or her to pray is somehow not a real Christian?

This prayer controversy is not akin to abortion or the death penalty or providing government aid to the poor. In debating issues like those, one’s personal faith does cross into the public sphere, and we seek out leaders who have the same beliefs as us. That is how our system works.

But let’s not judge our elected officials — or anyone, for that matter — based on an interpretation of what constitutes proper prayer. Doing so belittles the personal covenant of faith and vainly attempts to elevate ourselves as judges in a sphere where mere mortals don’t have standing. As the familiar boyhood taunt goes, who died and made them god?

(Scott McLeod can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.)

Haywood commissioners urged to stick by Christian prayers despite court ruling

A group of Christians paid a visit to Haywood County commissioners Monday night to urge them to pray to Jesus when opening each meeting.

Commissioner Kevin Ensley, the sole commissioner who referred to Jesus during invocations, decided in late January to refrain from praying at all since he couldn’t legally mention the word “Jesus” while leading public prayer.

Ensley’s decision was prompted by a recent court ruling in Forsyth County that struck down overt Christian prayers by commissioners. Generic prayer, however, is fully acceptable by legal standards.

The Forsyth ruling was not revolutionary. It has been widely established that prayers by government officials during public meetings specifically referring to “Jesus” violate the First Amendment, which holds that the state cannot endorse any one religion.

Speakers urged Haywood commissioners to engage in civil disobedience, arguing that there are some principles worth fighting for.

They vehemently opposed praying to an unknown God to satisfy the minority and called for a vote by citizens on the issue.

“The majority’s with the believers, with the Christians,” said one speaker, emphasizing that he only votes for conservative, Christian leaders.

“Prayer in any other name other than the name of Jesus is an empty prayer,” said Reverend Roy Kilby, who asked commissioners if they are Christians. All five of them raised their hands.

Shortly after the public comment period ended, Ensley said he had changed his mind and wanted to be included in the prayer rotation for meetings again. He said he would recite the opening and closing lines of the Lord’s Prayer, which does not expressly mention “Jesus” but still implies Christianity.

Ensley said he understood that folks were upset, but that he was glad that he helped revive the tradition of a prayer to open commissioner meetings shortly after he was elected.

“I’m glad we at least have it,” said Ensley.

Most commissioners indicated their devotion to Christianity, but said they must respect the separation of church and state.

Commissioner Kirk Kirkpatrick stated he went to one of the few Christian law schools in the country, while Commissioner Skeeter Curtis said he’d only stop praying when Washington did.

Commissioner Bill Upton emphasized that he doesn’t have to use “Jesus” to validate his prayer.

“I know who I’m talking to. That’s the important thing,” said Upton. “I know who the Heavenly Father is, and I don’t back up from that.”

Court ruling bars county endorsement of Christian prayer

County commissioners in Western North Carolina face a fork in the road after a federal judge in Forsyth County made it clear last week that prayers mentioning “Jesus” at county meetings are unconstitutional.

They can submit to the law, or continue violating it.

Haywood County commissioners have decided to opt for the first, less litigious route, while Macon County commissioners insist they will carry on with their overtly Christian prayers — despite the potential threat of a lawsuit similar to the one in Forsyth.

In the middle is Swain County, where commissioners may be split over whether to alter their prayers. Jackson County does not have a prayer to open its county meetings.

On Thursday, U.S. District Court Judge James Beaty ruled that Forsyth County commissioners violated the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution by endorsing Christianity at their government meetings. The ruling will likely carry weight across the state and cause county commissioners to reevaluate their prayer policies.

Although Forsyth commissioners invited pastors from all faiths to give the invocation at the beginning of each meeting, nearly all the ones who showed up led Christian prayers.

This revolving door policy of sorts closely mirrors that of Macon County. Haywood and Swain commissioners lead the opening prayers themselves.

Haywood County Attorney Chip Killian said he’d notified the commissioners of the Forsyth case and advised them to no longer use sectarian prayers. Of the three Haywood commissioners who took turns giving the prayer, two already avoided specific references to Jesus. But Commissioner Kevin Ensley closed every prayer with “In Jesus’ name.”

It happened to be Ensley’s turn to lead the prayer Monday, mere days after the federal ruling was handed down. Before the meeting started, Chairman Kirk Kirkpatrick asked Ensley if he’d be comfortable praying without invoking a specific religion.

Ensley decided to step aside, however if he couldn’t pray according to his faith. Ensley said he took himself out of the rotation for prayer to avoid trouble with the courts.

Ensley and Kirkpatrick agreed they would rather have a generic invocation before meetings than not pray at all.

“If that’s the way the court’s ruling right now, I guess we should abide by the law,” said Ensley. “To me, it’s a freedom of speech issue...It’s a shame that there’s a minority of people out there that’s offended by something they don’t even believe.”

While Kirkpatrick said he also feels strongly about his Christian faith, he only uses generic words like “God” and “Lord,” which are allowed under established law.

“When I give the invocation, I am wary that I’m giving it for the county and not for myself,” said Kirkpatrick. “I think that’s the difference.”

Haywood Commissioner Skeeter Curtis agreed the board should respect the law.

“Whatever the law requires us to have to do, we’re going to have to do it,” said Curtis. “There’s no way that we can go against that.”

 

Civil disobedience in Macon

Macon County commissioners are adamantly continuing their prayer policy, which endorses Christianity.

Macon Commissioner Jim Davis said while he took an oath to uphold the law when elected, he disagrees with this one and believes it needs to be changed.

Davis admits the prayer policy might alienate some, but said he delineates between prayer at school, which is mandatory, and prayer at commissioners meeting, which residents can skip.

As a Christian, Davis said he is not offended by the mention of “Jesus” in prayers before the commissioners meetings.

“I’m just not a very politically correct guy,” said Davis. “We can’t guarantee that people aren’t going to be offended. You have a right to be offended, and I have a right to not be bothered by that.”

Macon County Chairman Ronnie Beale said he would suggest continuing a practice that’s “worked for decades” in Macon County.

The federal ruling from across the state will not impact Macon County’s policy, Beale said.

“That’s in Forsyth County, not Macon County,” said Beale, adding that the board does not plan to discuss the prayer policy unless it is brought up.

Beale said he could not comment on the potential for a lawsuit over the county’s violation of constitutional law, claiming the possibilities for someone suing the county are endless.

“We’ll cross that bridge when we get to it,” said Beale.

Alex Cury, chair of the Western North Carolina chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, said it is unfortunate some government leaders are brazenly breaking the law.

“I think that it’s completely unethical for elected officials to ignore the long established law of the land,” said Cury. “I would like to see elected officials follow the law. If they don’t like the law, they can seek a constitutional measure to correct the law. Many of us disagree with the law, but to violate the law is to violate the position of trust.”

There are measures available to any citizen who opposes Christian prayers at government meetings, Cury said.

“But that’s up to the citizens of the community, whether they are offended and want the law enforced,” said Cury. These residents can start by expressing their thoughts and feelings with county commissioners, with legal recourse as another option.

Cury’s recommendation to commissioners is to avoid hot water by opting for a few minutes of silence.

“People who think it’s important to pray can pray silently,” said Cury. “People who are not people of faith can think over what they’re going to say.”

 

Undecided in Swain

Swain County commissioners aren’t eager to discontinue Christian prayers at their meeting but are mulling the possibility.

Kim Lay, who serves as the attorney to the Swain County board, said she is obligated to recommend that commissioners follow the law, whatever that may be.

“I will advise the board when asked what the status of the law is at this time and advise them to follow it,” Lay said.

In Swain County, Commissioners Phil Carson and Steve Moon take turns saying a prayer to open the commissioners meetings, and both routinely offer the prayer in the name of Jesus Christ. Both feel strongly about praying in Jesus’ name as an integral part of their prayer.

“If I am called upon to pray, I will pray in Jesus’ name,” Moon said.

But Moon acknowledged that he doesn’t want the county to bear unintended consequences, like a lawsuit that would cost taxpayer money to defend.

“If I was only speaking for myself, I would continue to pray, but since I am a county commissioner and represent the county of Swain, I don’t want the county of Swain to get sued,” Moon said.

Moon said the commissioners will need to discuss the issue and decide what to do in light of the federal court ruling.

Swain County Commissioner David Monteith isn’t in the prayer rotation for Swain meetings, but if he was ever given the opportunity to lead the prayer, he says he would do so in Jesus’ name.

“I don’t pray without saying ‘In Jesus’ name,’” Monteith said. “There best be a federal judge there to arrest me because I will not compromise on that.”

 

Crystal clear law

Technically, federal case precedent dating to 2004 already bans references to Jesus Christ during prayers at county commissioners meetings in North Carolina. But many counties have carried on unfazed.

In the latest case, Judge Beaty ruled that striking down Christian prayer at government meetings does not infringe on the private rights of citizens to free speech or free exercise of religion.

The sole question, Beaty wrote, is whether the government has endorsed a particular faith.

The Supreme Court has recognized that legislative prayers that open or solemnize government meetings are part of a “rich history and tradition in this country” and are constitutional. However, the Supreme Court has also emphasized that such legislative prayers should not affiliate government with a particular faith or belief.

The Forsyth ruling quotes a previous case, which states, “Repeated invocation of the tenets of a single faith undermines our commitment to participation by persons of all faiths in public life. For ours is a diverse nation not only in matters of secular viewpoint but also in matters of religious adherence.”

Forsyth County Commissioners now face their own choice on prayer: no longer opening meetings with a prayer or open with a generic invocation.

Becky Johnson contributed to this report.

Congregation backs leaders’ stand on prayer

Responding to a Smoky Mountain News article covering the debate over prayer at public meetings, a group of Macon County residents attended the county’s first board meeting of the New Year to urge the commissioners to hold their ground on praying in Jesus’ name before its meetings.

Rev. Greg Rogers thanked the board for taking a “bold stand” in defense of Christian prayer. His speech was punctuated by “amens” from a large group of supporters gathered in the county’s boardroom.

The meeting began, as it does normally, with an invocation. Rev. Guy Duvall prayed at length and finished his prayer with the familiar words, “In Jesus’ name we pray.”

The county-sanctioned prayer confirmed the position Macon County Chairman Ronnie Beale established in last week’s news story when he said he supported the use of praying in Jesus’ name.

Technically, federal case precedent dating to 2004 already bans references to Jesus Christ during prayers at county commissioners meetings in North Carolina. But many counties have carried on the practice.

A current lawsuit, being waged in Winston-Salem, specifically challenges the practice of guest pastors from the community being invited to give the invocations. The same practice is used in Macon County. But Beale said earlier that unless a court case landed on his own doorstep, he has no intention of changing course.

Rev. Rogers promised his support and the support of his congregants in the event of a court battle.

“Thank you. We support you,” Rogers said. “I know there are many who will come to oppose us and say we need a moment of silence instead, but we believe that prayer only works in Jesus’ name.”

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