Commissioners renew commitment to prayer before meetings

Commissioners renew commitment to prayer before meetings
March 19
00:00 2015

Forsyth County Board of Commissioners is moving to resume prayer before its board meetings.

The Board voted to adopt an updated policy regarding opening invocations before the board meetings, after an injunction to prohibit the sectarian prayer before meetings was thrown out in 2014.

The vote was unanimous, with the motion to approve the updated policy made by Commissioner Gloria Whisenhunt and seconded by Commissioner Ted Kaplin. The seven-member Board of Commissioners holds two business meetings each month, on the second and fourth Mondays. The meetings are held in the County Commissioners Meeting Room on the fifth floor of the Forsyth County Government Center, 201 N. Chestnut St. in downtown Winston-Salem.

The updated policy states that the invocation will not be recognized as an agenda item, is not considered part of the public business and is not mandatory. The invocations will be done voluntarily by speakers who have responded to public notices that invite those who want to speak at the meetings to contact the clerk to the board.

“We are going to go ahead and place those ads and start scheduling as early as late March or April,” said County Manager J. Dudley Watts Jr. “We’ll do that every year and just keep a rotation going like we did before the lawsuit.”

An ad is in this week’s Chronicle.

Forsyth County previously invited clergy before commissioners meetings. In 2007, the county was sued. The lawsuit, Joyner v. Forsyth County, was filed by the local branches of the American Cilvil Liberties Union and Americans United for Separation of Church and State in the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of North Carolina.

Those named on the suit stated that they were suing because the board did not have “a policy which discourages or prohibits those whom [the board] has invited to deliver prayers from including references to Jesus Christ, or any other sectarian deity, as part of their prayers.”

The injunction was thrown out by U.S. District Court Judge James A. Beaty Jr., who reminded board members to be inclusive in their policy choice. His ruling was made possible by the U.S. Supreme Court ruling in the Greece, N.Y. v. Galloway case, where justices voted 5-4 that the town didn’t violate the U.S. Constitution by allowing ministers to deliver Christian prayer at meetings because the town had an inclusive policy.

The Commissioners’ clerk will complete the invocation schedule and make sure the speaker will not be scheduled to offer an invocation at consecutive meetings or two meetings in a year. There will be no prior inquiry, review of or involvement in the content of the invocation. Other potential speakers can be added to the list at any time.

While the Board did not include many stipulations in the updated policy, they did include this:

“The Board requests only that the prayer opportunity not be exploited as an effort to convert others to the particular faith of the invocational speaker, threaten damnations, nor to disparage any faith or belief different than that of the invocational speaker.”

Commissioner Everette Witherspoon said that he is happy with the updated policy and said so are his constituents. “For many, including African-Americans, our decisions are faith-based. We’ve always had to fight for what we felt was right … it is right for Christians to be able to say ‘Jesus’ when praying, just as it would be right if they were Muslim and saying ‘Allah,’ or Buddhist and calling upon ‘Buddha,’” he said.

Charles F. Wilson, president of the local chapter of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, and an ordained Baptist minister, said that the group is happy that the county is inviting all religious groups to participate and calls that an improvement of the previous policy. “Our position overall is the same as it’s always been. We had rather there be a moment of silence. That’s not going to happen unless the person who has it that evening has a moment of silence,” he said. “It’s a government meeting, and we don’t think they should necessarily have any kind of prayer at a government meeting.”

Watts said, “The law of the land now is that invited ministers can come, give an invocation according to the dictates of their own faith, and that’s acceptable.”

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Chanel Davis

Chanel Davis

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