Faithandthelaw's Blog

The law as it relates to Christians and their free exercise of religion

Haywood County, North Carolina Commissioners Wrestle over Prayer

Posted by faithandthelaw on February 19, 2010

WAYNESVILLE — For the Rev. Roy Kilby, there can be no compromise on prayer.

For Haywood County Commissioner Mark Swanger, demands from Kilby on how commissioners handle prayer at their meetings amount to religious intolerance.

In a debate similar to the one playing out in Buncombe County, commissioners in Haywood are considering changing the way they pray at the start of meetings following a recent federal judge’s ruling.

The change would keep out references to Jesus in favor of more generic prayers. Commissioners have taken no vote on the issue and have not set a timeline for making a decision, but have come under fire from Kilby and other critics.

“If we are going to do a public prayer, then we ought to follow up with the source of our faith, which is the Lord Jesus,” Kilby said on Wednesday. “A generic prayer means there is a generic God and that isn’t true.”

Swanger said demands from Kilby and others that prayers include Jesus references cross the line.

“I am very uneasy with anyone telling a commissioner or anyone else what the content of a prayer should be,” he said. “That is what the Taliban does.”

The debate in Haywood follows a Jan. 28 judge’s ruling that prayer at Forsyth County commissioners’ meetings represented an illegal governmental establishment of religion because so many of the prayers employed clearly Christian terms.

Members of the clergy were invited to pray at those meetings, as had been done in Buncombe County before commissioners decided to drop the practice in favor of themselves offering prayer to start meetings.

Prayer at government meetings, in schools or before public school sporting events has long been controversial.

The courts have taken a strong stand on prayer in schools, with most rulings focusing on the idea that prayer in public classrooms could be considered religious indoctrination.

But the courts have left room for debate on prayer at government meetings, including a 1983 ruling that allowed Nebraska state leaders to offer a generic prayer.

The change would keep out references to Jesus in favor of more generic prayers. Commissioners have taken no vote on the issue and have not set a timeline for making a decision, but have come under fire from Kilby and other critics.

“If we are going to do a public prayer, then we ought to follow up with the source of our faith, which is the Lord Jesus,” Kilby said on Wednesday. “A generic prayer means there is a generic God and that isn’t true.”

Swanger said demands from Kilby and others that prayers include Jesus references cross the line.

“I am very uneasy with anyone telling a commissioner or anyone else what the content of a prayer should be,” he said. “That is what the Taliban does.”

The debate in Haywood follows a Jan. 28 judge’s ruling that prayer at Forsyth County commissioners’ meetings represented an illegal governmental establishment of religion because so many of the prayers employed clearly Christian terms.

Members of the clergy were invited to pray at those meetings, as had been done in Buncombe County before commissioners decided to drop the practice in favor of themselves offering prayer to start meetings.

Prayer at government meetings, in schools or before public school sporting events has long been controversial.

The courts have taken a strong stand on prayer in schools, with most rulings focusing on the idea that prayer in public classrooms could be considered religious indoctrination.

But the courts have left room for debate on prayer at government meetings, including a 1983 ruling that allowed Nebraska state leaders to offer a generic prayer.

The different ways the law is interpreted are evident across Western North Carolina.

Some elected leaders, like those in Jackson County, don’t pray at all before meetings. In Asheville, City Council members rotate the responsibility of prayer at the start of meetings.

The commissioners in Haywood hold their meetings in a courthouse with a large display of the Ten Commandments behind them.

Todd Collins, an assistant professor of political science at Western Carolina University, said the framers of the Constitution wrestled with the same issues.

But, in the end, the nation’s founders created a set of laws aimed at protecting everyone’s rights.

“We have these protections in place that, in some ways, seem undemocratic,” he said. “But I think they are there for a specific reason because our feelings on what is right today may not be the same 10 years from now.”

Kilby, who leads Bethel Baptist Church in Canton, wants commissioners to pledge to pray to Jesus as a group before each meeting if the board won’t offer a specific prayer while it’s in session.

He said it’s important for voters to know where their leaders stand on the matter.

Swanger said prayer for him is a personal communication with God and the demand is unreasonable.

“That is arrogant, in my opinion, and contrary to democratic principles,” he said.

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