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.