County commissioners debate restoring prayer before meetings following Supreme Court ruling to allow it
Macon County Commissioner Chairman Kevin Corbin, along with the consensus of the board, instructed county attorney Chester Jones to look into drafting a resolution that would bring back the practice of praying before county meetings.
“As chairman, I would recommend we ask the county attorney to give us some guidance on that and perhaps we could reinstate having the prayers at our meeting—with consensus of the board.”
Earlier this month, a Supreme Court ruling upheld the decision to allow Christian prayers at the start of local council meetings, stating that they are part of a long standing tradition across the country.
The ruling, which permits any kind of prayers as long as they do not denigrate non- Christians, passed with the backing of the conservative majority on a 5-4 vote in the Supreme Court.
County Manager Derek Roland said praying before county government meetings was standard practice as recently as 2010. “County officials would invite local clergymen to open monthly meetings with an invocation and would then present them with a county flag in recognition of their service,” said Roland.
That practice changed for the county after a federal judge ruled when Forsyth County, North Carolina was sued for holding a sectarian prayer during their commission meetings.
Since that ruling was handed down, Macon County made the move to open up meetings with a moment of silence instead of a prayer, although they would still pray before sharing a meal together, regardless if the purpose of the meal was to hold a meeting that was called into session or not.
With the support of the commission, Jones said he would draft a memo explaining not only that the board would recognize prayer before meeting, but would also outline what types of prayers would be allowed, to present to commissioners in June.
Despite the ruling, the Town of Franklin currently has no plans to change its policies, which currently does not include praying before meetings.
Franklin Mayor Bob Scott acknowledged that while the ultimate decision would be left up to the board to vote on, he did not think praying before meetings was a practice the board should adopt. “I just don’t think it is a good idea,” said Scott. “We haven’t had any discussion one way or the other, but I think it opens up a lot of things to consider and could cause some trouble when it comes to who prays before the meetings and what types of prayers are allowed.”
Scott noted that he ultimately was concerned with the interpretation of the law and that it would allow anyone willing to come before the board to lead any type of prayer.
Town Attorney John Henning Jr. stated that he has two minds regarding the Supreme Court’s decision. “On the one hand, it has never seemed fair that some bodies of government (both houses of Congress, for instance) have official chaplains and begin sessions with sectarian prayers, which has been upheld as an allowable way to 'solemnize' the proceedings of those bodies, but the same rules have not been extended to local governments. The holding in Town of Greece seems to set those bodies on equal footing now,” said Henning. “However, put into practice, this would still seem to be fraught with threats of challenge. Under this holding, local government bodies need not have a program of enforced diversity in who gives the prayers, from what sect and to what deity - indeed, it is implied that doing so might even amount to unconstitutional viewpoint discrimination - so long as the local government has a nondiscriminatory policy. But the majority opinion also says that, 'If the course and practice over time shows that the invocations denigrate nonbelievers or religious minorities, threaten damnation, or preach conversion, many present may consider the prayer to fall short of the desire to elevate the purpose of the occasion and to unite lawmakers in their common effort.' Taken altogether, to me that amounts to a policy and practice that is very difficult to administer.”
Town Alderman Barbara McRae stated that while she would entertain the idea of prayer before meetings it would come with pause. “I am not against prayers before government meetings, as long as they are non-denominational in character,” said McRae. “There are many varieties of religious belief; government shouldn’t appear to be imposing any particular variety on the public, and thus inadvertently cause offense to those of different persuasions. On the other hand, a prayer can help set a note of solemnity and help people compose their thoughts before the serious business of the meeting. It also doesn’t hurt to show that the public body recognizes there is a higher power, though members may not agree on who or what that higher power is.
In other words – I probably wouldn’t advocate for such prayers, but I also wouldn’t object.”
According to Highlands Mayor Patrick Taylor, like Franklin, the Highlands Board of Commissioners currently has no plans to change their current policies on prayer at meetings, and currently does not hold prayers before meetings.
Macon County commissioners are expected to continue discussion on the matter at the June monthly meeting.