Recurring money problems pit HCC, county against each other

Haywood Community College leaders are at odds with county commissioners over funding for the college.

The county slashed capital contributions to the community college by two-thirds due to the recession. The college counted on the annual funding for repairs and renovations and is now hamstrung by the loss.

Unable to produce what was promised during better times, the county commissioners have pitched another solution: dipping into a special pot of money earmarked for expansion projects.

College leaders don’t like the idea. Dipping into the special pot of money to cover repairs — like new roofs or paving jobs — would sideline some of their expansion plans for new buildings.

College leaders responded with a two-fold appeal to the commissioners. They want their annual maintenance funding restored. And they want the special pot of money to be placed in a lock box to fund new construction only.

The college is entirely dependent on the county for construction dollars, whether it’s filling potholes, patching holes in the roof, replacing carpet or building new facilities. While the state funds community college operations, from salaries to the light bills, it doesn’t pay a dime toward upkeep of buildings or new construction. That is left up to counties.

“They have a responsibility to build the buildings the community college needs,” said Bill Bird, a supporter of Haywood Community College. “They need to find the money to do it.”

But the county claims it is cash-strapped and can’t afford to restore the funding that was cut.

“I am looking for a win-win situation, and it is tough to have a win-win situation when you don’t have money,” Commissioner Bill Upton said.

Bird said that the commissioners seem to find the money “to do they things they want to do,” however.

 

Recession hamstrings county

When the recession hit, commissioners slashed the county’s budget by $7 million. No branch of county government was spared. As a last resort, commissioners even enacted a slight property tax increase to avoid deeper cuts.

The college saw its annual contribution for maintenance and construction drop from $500,000 to $165,000.

“Capital outlay across the board was reduced by two-thirds. No particular entity was singled out,” County Manager David Cotton said.

Nonetheless, it created a backlog of repair needs at the college. The nursing building has no insulation and the siding is deteriorating, for example. That was on the list to repair this year, but got pushed back, said Debbie Trull, executive director of administrative services.

“I understand the commissioners are in a real problem financially with the amount of taxes they collect and the amount of wants,” said Larry Leatherwood, the leader of a group that supports full funding for the college’s needs. But the county can’t simply let the buildings at the college crumble, he said.

“If you don’t take care of what you got, you end up spending more in the long run to fix what you had,” Leatherwood said.

College leaders argued that HCC is an economic driver in the community. Its practical degrees, both for young students and the unemployed trying to re-enter the workforce, are invaluable. HCC even partners directly with industry in the county to provide job-specific training.

Enrollment has increased in recent years, and HCC will serve more than 10,000 students this year.

“That is a number, but behind that number is a lot of pressure on the college and its facilities,” said Dr. Rose Johnson, HCC president.

Even before the cuts, the annual funding wasn’t enough.

“We have a lot of buildings there now and to maintain what you own takes right much money every year,” said Neal Ensley, a member of the college board of trustees.

It certainly wasn’t enough to fund expansions. The master plan calls for a new building for the flagship arts and crafts program, an expansion of its equally renowned natural resources department and a new building for emergency services instruction.

“The money you get for maintenance is not sufficient to build new buildings or to make major additions,” Ensley said.

That’s why the college needed a special pot of money. And the perfect solution just happened to come along. In 2007, the state gave counties the option of enacting a quarter cent sales tax. In Haywood County, it would raise about $1.5 million a year — a nice sum to pay for HCC’s expansion plans.

Typically, counties don’t have the power to enact sales tax, but the state made an exception. It came with a hitch: counties could enact the quarter cent sales tax only if it was put on the ballot and passed a countywide vote. Commissioners decided to take the gamble, pledging to dedicate the sales tax proceeds to HCC if the measure passed.

Supporters of the community college mounted a campaign to convince the public to approve the measure, and it worked. The sales tax passed with 57 percent of the vote in May 2008. Haywood County was one of only a few counties where the voluntary tax passed muster with voters.

“I have to thank the people of Haywood County for passing that. It shows the people of Haywood County think the community college is a real source of help for them,” Neal Ensley said.

The pitch to voters throughout was clear. The sales tax would be set aside for construction and expansion on the campus of Haywood Community College.

“The money we were going to raise with the quarter cent sales tax was new money not to supplant or take the place of or eliminate the maintenance money,” said Larry Leatherwood, the chairman of Neighbors of Haywood Community College, a group that formed in 2008 with the express purpose of lobbying the public to pass the sales tax.

College leaders are upset at the prospect of using the special pot of money for general maintenance.

But Julie Davis, county finance director, sees the situation far more positively. The sales tax money offers the college a lucky break.

“If it weren’t for the sales tax, I don’t know that the county could come up with the money without increasing taxes,” said Julie Davis, county finance officer. “Thank goodness we have the sales tax to give.”

In reality, the county is only proposing that a small sliver of the quarter cent sales tax go toward maintenance: about $800,000 for two major roof repairs. The rest would still be going to new construction projects for now.

College leaders fear the commissioners are setting a precedent, however. Instead of restoring the annual capital outlay to pre-recession levels, the county may stick with the lower contributions and rely on sales tax proceeds to make up the difference.

“If we spend the quarter cent sales tax on anything but new buildings, we won’t get the new buildings we need,” Ensley said.

Commissioner Skeeter Curtis said that’s not what he intended nor what the voters were told.

“I looked at it as this was money you would have in addition to what we already gave you,” Curtis told the college leaders. “We have to decide which way we are going to go. Are we going to say we aren’t going to give them any money because the quarter cent sales tax satisfies their needs?”

 

Tension at work session

Community college leaders and county commissioners met last week to hash out the issue. Despite civility by both sides, the tension was obvious.

Commissioner Bill Upton opened the meeting in a friendly fashion, but admitted upfront that everyone may not get what they want.

“Tonight is for us to listen,” Upton said. “We’ll find out what we agree on and what we don’t agree on. We won’t always agree, but we will go away happy knowing that people are listening.”

“I appreciate you laying the groundwork for this being friendly and informative conversation. That’s how we are approaching it also,” Johnson replied.

The format wasn’t exactly what the college desired, however. The commissioners took their usual place behind a long meeting table at the front of the room, while college representatives sat in the audience. To speak, they had to take turns coming up to a podium and speaking into a microphone.

“We envisioned we would all be sitting at a big conference table to allow for more give and take,” Johnson said at one point in the meeting.

The community college came armed with a slide presentation, replete with bar graphs and charts. The first half was aimed at demonstrating the value of the college to the community, followed by budget numbers illustrating the funding shortfall.

The college produced staggering figures: $33.2 million is needed between now and 2014. The number includes new construction, repairs, renovations, equipment and infrastructure.

The figures weren’t pulled out of a hat. Johnson said college staff spent the past two weeks getting estimates from contractors for every item on the wish list.

Of the total, new buildings and major additions account for the lion’s share — $25 million. It would take 30 years for the sales tax revenue to cover it all — even if none of it is diverted for maintenance and repairs.

County Manager David Cotton said the college clearly has needs beyond what the sales tax will pay for at the moment, but there’s nothing the county can do about that.

“I understood the agreement was ‘pay as you go’ and the quarter cent sales tax, whatever that amount was, would be the cap,” Cotton said.

 

Flagship in tatters

The first new building the college plans to tackle is a creative arts building, one of the college’s renowned degree programs. The college teaches commercial woodworking, pottery, weaving, jewelry making and more, along with a business component that helps artists thrive as entrepreneurs.

“It so well-known that people move here to do that program. It has been very important to us,” Neal Ensley said.

But the arts and crafts building is also one of those most in need of repair.

“It was falling down around the students,” Leatherwood said.

The old one will simply be demolished after the new one is built. The cost is estimated at $10 million.

The quarter cent sales tax is on track to bring in $1.5 million this year. It’s enough to cover payments on a $12 million loan over 15 years. That leaves another $2 million on the table for other projects that could be wrapped into the loan and tackled immediately.

Plus, the sales tax will likely reap a little more each year as commerce increases.

“When the economy does recover, I would anticipate some natural growth in the sales tax so I would think over time there would be additional funds annually,” Cotton said.

Not every penny of the sales tax proceeds will go to the loan payments, leaving more to work with.

But, the problem remains whether the county will restore the college’s annual contribution, which went toward maintenance.

“If we don’t get that annual allocation, we can’t function as a college. So that is the true issue,” Johnson told commissioners.

Buildings on campus are valued at more than $50 million, and it takes money to maintain that kind of facility, said Neal Ensley, an engineer and a member of the HCC trustees.

“If we don’t get that [appropriation], it will be a serious problem for the college,” Ensley said.

But that’s something the commissioners can’t answer right now. Next year’s budget is still in its infancy. It will be refined over the next two months as commissioners grapple with the usual tough decisions.

With the economy holding steady if not improving slightly, the county’s revenue should begin looking up. As commerce increases, so do sale tax revenues, which the county gets a part of. And as construction returns, new homes and businesses get added to the property tax base.

The uptick will be slight if anything, and for now the county is banking on a flat budget for the coming year.

“We don’t have the money right now, and it is hard to make people happy when you don’t have money,” Upton said.

“This budget is going to be tough,” Commissioner Skeeter Curtis agreed. “We cut millions of dollars in the current budget. The employees gave up time and money out of their pocket to get us where we are.”

“And jobs,” Commissioner Mark Swanger added.

“We cut the school system, we cut the county, we cut a lot of other people,” Upton said.

The county would be in a difficult position if it restored the budget for the community college ahead of everyone else, Upton said.

“I’m sure our school people would come to us and say ‘How about reinstating our capital outlay,’” Upton said.

 

Root of the conflict

An underlying source of contention is whether the county has failed to deliver on financial promises it made to the college over two years ago.

In 2007 — before the quarter cent sales tax idea was on the horizon — county commissioners and college leaders struck an agreement to give the college an advance on their annual funding. The college had a couple larger than normal projects it wanted to carry out — projects that exceeded the $500,000 capital outlay it was getting from the county each year.

So the county commissioners agreed to take out a $2.6 million loan on behalf of the college to fund the work. The county would then deduct the loan payments from future contributions each year until it was paid off.

“We couldn’t see anyway to get anything done at HCC unless we borrowed the money and paid it back with the $500,000,” Upton said.

The college got to work preparing construction documents and paperwork for the loan. But the construction documents were held up at the state level. In all, the process took two years.

With everything finally in hand, the college came to the county last month ready to make good on the offer of a loan.

But along the way, things had changed. Most notably, the recession had a stranglehold on the county. As part of countywide cuts, the college saw its maintenance and construction funding slashed by two-thirds, from $500,000 to $165,000.

The county commissioners couldn’t guarantee when the annual funding would be restored. That threw a wrench in the plans for a loan. The annual contributions were supposed to cover the loan payments but were no longer enough to do so.

Upton said the commissioners were somewhat surprised when the college showed up last month asking the county to make good on the loan promise made over two years ago.

“For two years, we really haven’t talked about the $2.6 million,” Upton said.

“I disagree,” Dr. Johnson replied.

“Where was it talked about?” Commissioner Mark Swanger asked Johnson.

Johnson said the college board of trustees and the college strategic planning committee regularly referenced the pending loan from the county. County Manager David Cotton was a part of those meetings, and Johnson assumed he was reporting back to the commissioners.

“There seems to be a disconnect between what has been discussed very thoroughly in strategic planning meetings and what has been presented to the commissioners from those meetings,” Johnson said. “We made decisions based on what we were understanding from county staff.”

Johnson said that appears to be the source of the misunderstanding.

Cotton took issue with the comment and called it disparaging.

“You address your board and I address mine. I feel I have kept them up to speed on the process. I did take offense to that remark,” Cotton said.

Johnson apologized and said she didn’t intend it that way. Johnson said the college trustees “moved forward in good faith” on things that apparently weren’t hard and fast decisions.

Swanger said discussions the college leaders had with county staff during planning meetings are just that: discussion, not decisions.

“They are not binding,” Swanger told Johnson. “We need to make sure that monetary decisions are not made based on conversations that were not formally endorsed by this board.”

However, Johnson assumed she would have been corrected somewhere along the way if the loan had been taken off the table.

Upton asked why it took so long for the loan to get squared away.

“Our request for that construction was stalled at the state level for many, many, many months,” Johnson said. “It was not lack of work on the behalf of the college. It was beyond our control.”

Johnson said county staff was updated regularly of the status.

The college had two projects in mind for the $2.6 million: $1.8 million for an expansion and $800,000 for major roof replacements.

As the college waited and waited to get construction documents approved on the expansion, it chose to move forward with the roof repairs. To pay for it, the college borrowed from flood settlement funds. The flood money stemmed from the 2004 flooding along the Pigeon River, which destroyed several satellite HCC buildings near downtown Clyde.

The flood money was supposed to go toward only new construction, theoretically to replace the destroyed classroom buildings, and not things like roof repairs. But the college planned to pay back the borrowed flood money as soon as the loan from the county came through.

Johnson said it is “critically important” to repay the flood money.

“We need to repay the flood settlement fund for monies that have been diverted for other purposes,” Johnson said.

Johnson said the county had previously agreed to pay back what was borrowed from the flood account with the $2.6 million loan.

Commissioners seemed puzzled, however, and asked County Manager David Cotton if he could remember such a promise.

Johnson said she thought the commissioners passed a resolution to that effect. Cotton disagreed. The commissioners did pass a resolution pledging to help the college with a loan, but it made no reference to paying back what was borrowed from the flood settlement fund.

“I wasn’t aware there was an agreement for you to spend money and get reimbursed,” Davis said.

“I wasn’t aware of it,” Commissioner Skeeter Curtis said.

“I wasn’t aware of it,” Commissioner Mark Swanger echoed. “I wasn’t even aware that money was being used. I reviewed the minutes, and it is not reflected in the minutes.”

Mark Bumgarner, chairman of the HCC Board of Trustees, then stepped up to the microphone and said the more important issue was that the county had promised to take out a $2.6 million loan on the college’s behalf. The college was counting on that, he said.

The college will still get the money, Davis chimed in. It will just come from a different source now.

The sales tax has been accumulating since October 2008. In another few months, there will be just the right amount saved up to cover everything the college needs without taking out a loan.

“We will end up with $2.6 million sitting there,” Davis said. “They are going to get the money, it’s just we aren’t going to have to borrow it.”

“And that is from the quarter cent sales tax money,” Dr. Johnson clarified.

“Right,” Commissioner Kevin Ensley said.

Ultimately, county commissioners voted not to do the loan, but instead to use money from the quarter cent sales tax.

Using the accumulated pot of sales tax money won’t affect the county’s ability to still take out a $12 million loan for the creative arts building, Davis said.

 

Pinching pennies?

Commissioners questioned whether the college is making the best use of the money it has.

Commissioner Kevin Ensley did a cost comparison of the creative arts building and other construction projects in the county in recent years, including the new jail, justice center and Bethel Elementary School.

“I am a little it concerned with the cost. This is the most expensive building per square foot that I have seen in Haywood County by far,” Ensley said.

“You would have to compare apples to apples,” Johnson replied.

Johnson said the creative arts building requires dust collection systems for the woodworking classrooms, air ventilation for jewelry making and extremely high-energy use for pottery kilns. The college also has to meet energy efficiency mandates imposed by the state for new buildings. The energy used by the kilns and shop tools made it particularly costly to meet those state mandates.

Under Johnson, the college has embarked on green initiatives aimed at sustainability. Commissioner Swanger questioned whether green features incorporated into the building cost more.

Johnson said the building’s green features don’t cost any more than a traditional design would, according to estimates of both.

Nonetheless, Ensley asked the college leaders to go over the plans for the creative arts building and look for savings.

“I want to be a good steward of taxpayers money, and I really wish y’all could take a good look at this,” Kevin Ensley said. “That is my honest opinion — it is a couple, three million too high.”

But it may be too late to realize substantial returns.

“We may have approached the creative arts facility a little differently knowing the facts we know today, but we are sufficiently on the train tracks, and it is really hard to make changes,” said Bumgarner, chair of the HCC trustees.

Commissioner Skeeter Curtis asked why all this mattered since the money is coming out of a special sales tax fund anyway.

“I think we have lost focus here,” Curtis said. “The people in this county voted that in and the quarter cent belongs to the community college. It is their money.”

Swanger said it is still tax dollars being paid by county residents, and it should be spent prudently.

In this case, Curtis said, it was up to the college to be prudent with the money.

Swanger disagreed. If the college overspends on the creative arts building, “then the college comes back to us for additional appropriations to fill in other gaps,” Swanger said.

“We aren’t picking up the gap anyhow,” Curtis countered.

Curtis made it clear that he wasn’t happy about the cuts the college suffered at the hands of the county.

“By law, the county is supposed to keep it up, and we just let it go a long time. It was falling apart out there. We have let a lot of our facilities end up like [that],” Curtis said.

“We have to decide what are we going to take care of. This is going to get worse as years go on. That’s the reason we are in the situation we are in now because we haven’t done anything,” Curtis said. “We need to keep this from happening to the next board.”

Curtis expressed similar sentiments last month when the commissioners became the new owner of the fairgrounds. The Haywood County Fair board had relied on an annual contribution from the county to pay off a loan for a new arena. When the recession hit and the funding was cut, the fair board couldn’t pay the loan and faced foreclosure.

So the county stepped in to rescue the fairgrounds, anteing up the money to pay off the loan after all and assuming ownership of the fairgrounds from the nonprofit in the process.

Curtis had the unique stance of voting against a slight property tax increase last year during the thick of the recession. His reason: it wasn’t enough of an increase. Curtis felt the cuts to the county budget went too deep and too far. Curtis’ seat is up for election this year, but he is not running.

Commissioner Ensley pointed out that the county is paying $300,000 a year on a loan for the construction of the HCC Child Development Center, a teaching institution and daycare combined.

“I think it is important that everyone know the full contributions the county is making,” Swanger chimed in. “The child development center is substantial.”

The county also donated a tract of land to the college for future expansion that is valued between $650,000 and $900,000.

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.”

Jackson County board race to meter voter confidence

Jackson

The Jackson County board consists of four commissioners and one chairman. This year, the two commissioner seats and chairman are up for election. Commissioners must live within their voting district to seek election, but the county chairman is elected at-large.

After a year of controversy centered on a number of high-profile decisions on the part of the Jackson County board, three key members are up for re-election in November.

Chairman Brian McMahan, Commissioner Tom Massie, and Commissioner William Shelton have all said they will seek re-election.

The commissioners have been dogged by controversy over the past four years — some by their own design but some clearly landing on their doorstep uninvited.

McMahan said his decision to run was based on his desire to solve problems he inherited when he came on the board.

“Obviously we inherited some problems. I wasn’t part of creating those problems, but I will be past of solving those problems,” McMahan said.

The costly Dillsboro Dam fight, a controversial salary raise for top level county administrators, a tug-of-war over the county airport, and ongoing fallout from the implosion of the county’s economic development commission have kept county commissioners in the news.

However, McMahan cited the board’s ability to keep the tax rate among the lowest in the state while accomplishing key capital improvements as a measure of their success.

Some in the development and real estate industry are still angry over the passage of stringent mountainside development regulations four years ago, crafted during a five-month moratorium on new subdivisions. However, pro-development interests failed in their bid to oust Commissioners Mark Jones and Joe Cowan when they were up for election two years ago, suggesting the regulations were supported by the general public.

Commissioner William Shelton ran for his first term on a platform of environmental stewardship and responsible growth. After helping the county develop widely lauded development ordinances, Shelton said the faltering economy and some long-standing issues took center stage.

“I feel like in my first term the board has delved into some growth issues and we need to continue on and finish what we started for when the economy starts to grow again,” Shelton said.

Commissioner Tom Massie said he wants to run again to finish what he started.

“Most of the issues I originally ran on have been completed but not all of them,” Massie said.

Massie said he sees the next term as an opportunity for the board to move past the issues they inherited when they came on four years ago.

“We’re starting to get some things wrapped up and put behind us and now we’ll have some more time for projects that would move the county forward,” Massie said, citing the Jackson greenway and affordable housing.

The current members of the board are all Democrats. Jackson County GOP chair Dodie Allen said the party tried hard to find candidates to run, and thought they had found one, but the person changed their mind. As of now, Allen said there are no Republican challengers for any of the commissioner seats that she knows of.

The county heavily leans Democratic, which means the Democratic primary in May decided the final lineup of the board — which would be especially true if no Republicans even run.

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.”

Commissioners commit to former Wal-Mart site

After a marathon five hours of discussion on Wednesday (Jan. 13), Haywood County commissioners voted unanimously to buy the abandoned Wal-Mart shopping center near Lake Junaluska and retrofit the space to house the Department of Social Services and health department. Commissioners have been deliberating for more than a year on how to handle the crumbling DSS facility.

Three options presented themselves to the board: renovate the building, parts of which were built 80 years ago; build a new facility; or move offices to the renovated Wal-Mart. It would cost roughly $6.1 million to renovate the DSS and health department buildings, according to Dale Burris, Haywood’s director of facilities and maintenance.

However, County Manager David Cotton said the buildings “lack flexibility” for necessary renovations and upfits due to inherent design flaws.

Purchasing property and starting again from scratch would cost county taxpayers $25 to $30 million, according to research by the county and two architecture firms. Meanwhile, the county claims it could potentially save more than $12 million by taking over the old Wal-Mart.

“To me, there’s no choice there,” said Commissioner Mark Swanger. “Seems quite obvious."

Commissioner Bill Upton emphasized that the timing was crucial for making a decision.

“I don’t see this opportunity coming this way again,” said Upton. “We just got one shot, and that’s it.”

Commissioners felt especially pressured to move forward, knowing the state could yank 65 percent of DSS’s funds if it continued to flunk state standards. For now, the DSS building ranks in the bottom 1 percent of the state.

Haywood hopes to lock in a federal stimulus loan from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to purchase and retrofit the old Wal-Mart. That loan would result in $260,000 of annual debt service payments for 40 years and could possibly lead to a half-cent increase in the tax rate.

While a group of eight citizens came to the meeting to oppose the purchase, citing the need to save taxpayer dollars, the commissioners were adamant about finally moving on the deal.

Johnnie Cure said she didn’t buy the argument that the county must spend more to save in the long run. “It just doesn’t make sense to any of us,” said Cure. “Your mathematics, it ends up being fuzzy math where you can twist the facts and you can prove whatever you want to prove to us.”

On the other hand, the directors of DSS and health department came to the commissioners to plead their case and demonstrate a dire need for change.

They shared a slideshow of images to vividly illustrate the deteriorating conditions of facilities, revealing peeling paint, water leaks, hanging wires, and windows that are permanently stuck open. Some clients have routinely gotten stuck in the DSS building’s aging elevator.

“These are the reasons, the real reasons why we need to do something,” said Ira Dove, director of DSS.

Over at the health department, the two reigning concerns were adequate space and confidentiality.

Health department workers have had to use a garbage can to collect water leaking from the ceiling and surround cabinets with small heaters to prevent pipes from freezing.

Health director Carmine Rocco said the health department could not continue operate the same way year after year, hoping for its needs to be addressed. Rocco applauded the commissioners for their forward thinking approach.

Striking a balance between religion and religous freedom

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.”

Amen.

(Scott McLeod is the editor of The Smoky Mountain News. He can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..)

Haywood County poised to buy abandoned Wal-Mart

Haywood County Commissioners are expected to vote this week to buy the abandoned Wal-Mart shopping center near Lake Junaluska and retrofit the space to house the Department of Social Services.

Commissioners will convene a special meeting on the issue Wednesday (Jan. 13) where a vote is likely. They have been considering the old Wal-Mart site for more than a year.

Commissioner Mark Swanger said there are several reasons the old Wal-Mart is under serious consideration by the county — primarily because it is the cheapest option. Swanger called it a potential “bargain” for taxpayers.

Remodeling the current DSS office building, which dates back to the late 1920s and early ‘50s, could suck the county into a money pit, Swanger said.

“It would require millions in renovations, heating air, roof windows and you still have an inadequate space for doing business,” Swanger said.

Other sticky issues include lack of privacy for DSS workers handling sensitive cases and lack of handicapped accessibility.

“It is in the bottom one percent of DSS facilities in the state of North Carolina,” Swanger said.

Commissioner Bill Upton detailed the never-ending maintenance issues.

“It’s going to need a new roof, it’s going to need windows, it’s not wired for today’s technologies,” said Upton. “We could go on and on about what it would cost us, we would still have an old building.”

Meanwhile, building something new — including the cost of buying land and site work — would likely be twice as much as what the county hopes to spend on the old Wal-Mart site.

Upton, who supports buying the Wal-Mart property, estimates that a brand new DSS building would scoop $25 to $30 million out of Haywood’s budget.

Taking over the Wal-Mart property will require extensive remodeling to turn the gaping retail shell into offices, but it already has a roof and comes with a parking lot, for example.

Upton is confident that the new county offices would serve as a strong anchor for the shopping center and stimulate adjacent businesses.

Until now, county leaders have had a bad habit of putting off the looming problem for another year, according to Swanger.

“I think it has been recognized by many boards that this space is unsuitable and inadequate,” Swanger said.

As the DSS building continued to deteriorate, the county spent the past decade building a new justice center, a new jail and remodeling the historic courthouse, tying up much of its capital, along with things like a new elementary school in Bethel and new buildings at Haywood Community College.

“I suppose it has been just a matter of priorities,” Swanger said.

Though negotiations have been on and off for more than a year, the county is now in a better financial position to buy the property, Upton said.

“If we don’t do something now, it’s going to cost us much more in the future to buy property and start building,” said Commissioner Skeeter Curtis.

Upton also pointed out the geographic location in the middle of the county as being convenient to a greater number of residents.

If approved on Wednesday, Haywood’s DSS and health departments might share the old Wal-Mart with Tractor Supply Co., which is in the process of signing a lease for a portion of the store.

Latest prayer case rekindles controversy

A federal magistrate’s recommendation that limits prayer before government meetings in Forsyth County has touched off a fiery debate across the state over the long-entrenched practice.

In early November, Magistrate Judge Trevor Sharp determined that Forsyth County commissioners failed to remain religiously neutral. Even though they invited outside clergy of different denominations to deliver invocations before meetings, their prayers overwhelmingly referred to Jesus Christ, Savior or the Trinity. Such invocations “display a preference for Christianity over other religions by the government,” Sharp wrote.

The lawsuit was filed on behalf of two longtime residents of Forsyth County who said they felt coerced to stand for the prayer, alienated as county residents, and less inclined to attend county meetings.

A formal judge’s ruling is still pending, but it is widely held the magistrate’s recommendation will prevail. Forsyth County has already filed an objection and it is unclear how far an appeal might go. A decision is still pending. Precedents barring references to Christ at government meetings in the state are already on the books, however, according to a ruling by the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals in 2004 that originated in South Carolina. There, a citizen sued his town board for praying specifically to Jesus Chirst during the invocations and won.

 

Repercussions

After Sharp’s recommendation came to light, Buncombe County commissioners toyed with the idea of replacing their invocations with a moment of silence. Following a backlash from some county residents, the commissioners decided to keep their system of rotating clergy in place until the Forsyth case is decided.

While each county attorney has the responsibility of advising individual boards on prayer, Jim Blackburn, general counsel for the North Carolina Association of County Commissioners, advises commissioners to track down a court decision that defends their particular type of prayer.

Blackburn said it is far from unusual for county commissioners in North Carolina to conduct prayers at meetings, but the NCACC has not yet had much discussion on the practice. With the Forsyth case striking a chord for many commissioners, that’s likely to change.

“I expect we will [discuss prayer] at various meetings in the rest of winter and spring,” said Blackburn. “I do know there are people on boards of commissioners who feel strongly they ought to be able to do them.”

 

Interesting nuances

With a wealth of court battles waged over public prayers producing varied results, there’s bound to be some uncertainty each time the controversial topic resurfaces.

First Amendment and Constitutional scholars have debated the issue for a hundred years, and entire law school textbooks have been devoted to the subject, according to Blackburn.

“It’s an argument that’s been going on for a long, long time,” said Blackburn.

While the First Congress held a prayer before its sessions, the Constitution plainly states that the government can never establish an official religion.

“There’s just a logical disconnect,” said Janet Ford, a Western Carolina University professor who teaches a course on civil rights.

In 1983, Supreme Court upheld opening legislative sessions with generic prayers in Marsh v. Chambers. But more recently, Supreme Court justices have grown stringent about allowing prayers in public settings, especially in schools.

Justices seem to have drawn a distinction between prayer at schools and those at government meetings, according to Collins.

For example, even school prayers that are voluntary and nondenominational have been stricken down.

The Supreme Court rejected the state of Alabama’s institution of a moment of silence for personal reflection and prayer in all elementary schools.

According to Collins, the justices are strict about prayer in school because the setting is somewhat unique.

“Children are more impressionable. They can’t just get up and leave,” Collins said.

While prayers that children encounter in school every day receive high publicity, county meetings often have sparse attendance, allowing their prayers to land further off the radar.

Local government officials are usually unaware of the law or decide to break it anyway because they feel supported in their crusade by voters, Collins said.

Until they are legally challenged, local officials can continue flagrantly violating the law, thereby drawing attention to the limits of the judicial branch’s reach.

It would be difficult to change the status quo if most voters and commissioners accepted Christian prayers before government meetings, Collins added.

“For the elected officials, it may actually be a campaign point,” said Collins. “They may actually gain votes this way.”

Katy Parker, legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union of North Carolina, said most county and city attorneys agree with the ACLU, but they are unable to force their commissioners or city council members to follow the law.

Parker advises commissioners to consider that their taxpayers would be likely to foot the bill should a lawsuit arise. In the Forsyth case, which Parker is prosecuting, ACLU has already spent in excess of $100,000.

 

What is allowed?

While courts throughout the country have differed wildly in their judgments on prayers, Collins said as a guideline, a generic reference to God will more likely be allowed than any words confessing a particular faith. Words like “Heavenly Father” and “Lord” tend to be acceptable at public meetings, but uttering “Jesus” is usually the ticket to a lost lawsuit.

Parker said it’s hardly ever a close call with the cases she handles.

“It’s Jesus, Jesus, Jesus all throughout the prayer,” said Parker.

The majority opinion in Marsh v. Chambers ruled that there was a historical precedence for prayer before legislative sessions. Prayers also serve to “solemnize” the occasion.

The opinion amusingly adds that legislators need all the help they can get, Parker said.

While prayers are held before sessions of the U.S. Congress, it would take a U.S. Senator or Congressman’s challenge to change policy at that level.

ACLU would not complain against a specific county unless a resident who attends meetings and is bothered by prayers contacts the organization.

“We need to hear from somebody in the community who feels harmed before we’re going to take our time and resources and get involved,” said Parker. “Whether the ACLU contacts them or not, they swore to uphold the Constitution, and they should do it.”

 

Other quandaries

Some religious symbols, such as a Christmas trees, have become so routine and ceremonial that they have shed their religious symbolism in the public’s eye.

“We see it so often, it’s not thought of as necessarily endorsing religion,” said Todd Collins, professor of public law at Western Carolina University.

Courts have also upheld engraving “In God We Trust” on all coins and currency, arguing that it does not endorse religion.

Collins said this particular usage of that phrase has become a part of tradition and seems to hold little meaning for many who regularly see it on currency.

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.

“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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