The Buncombe County Board of Commissioners will continue to hold a pre-meeting prayer, as the board has decided, after consulting via phone, to wait on a federal court case to play out before deciding if the prayer will be replaced with a moment of silence.
“There was a consensus among the board to keep pre-meeting prayer for the moment, until we see a federal court ruling,” Chair David Gantt confirmed.
On Dec. 2, a memo distributed to local-government officials announced that the commissioners would replace the pre-meeting prayer with a moment of silence. Later, it emerged that the board had not made a decision on the matter, but was considering its options in the wake of a magistrate’s decision against a similar policy in Forsyth County.
The board was originally set to discuss — and possibly decide — the matter at its meeting tomorrow, Jan. 5. However, when the board announced its agenda for the meeting on Dec. 30, no discussion of pre-meeting prayer was present. Gantt says that he called up the commissioners individually over the holidays and that they decided to keep it off the agenda.
Such “serial meetings,” North Carolina Press Association attorney Mike Tadych says, aren’t against the letter of the law, but they don’t seem to conform to its spirit.
“The law is pretty strongly worded: ‘it is the public policy of North Carolina that the hearings, deliberations, and actions of these bodies be conducted openly,’” Tadych says, quoting the law. “That doesn’t seem to leave a lot of room for deciding something by telephone tag, but there’s no black letter case law against it yet.”
The item was never officially on the agenda. Gantt notes that “I expect people will have something to say [about the prayer issue] in the public-comment portion of the meeting.”
Since news about the board’s deliberations got out in early December, the board received “an outpouring of comments,” according to Gantt.
“The initial response was fairly evenly divided between those who felt strongly that we should keep a prayer and those who felt very strongly that we should not,” Gantt recalls. “But over the past few weeks, it’s shifted, and most of the responses have been overwhelmingly pro-prayer.”
The prayer is a fairly young tradition: The commissioners began holding a pre-meeting invocation in 1989 at the behest of then-Chair Gene Rainey. Since then, the religious representatives who have offered prayers before the board’s meeting have been overwhelmingly Christian. According to information provided by the clerk to the board, representatives of other religions have included one from the B’ahai faith in 2002, a Jewish rabbi in 2003 and a Unitarian Universalist pastor in 2007.
“It happens, but not very often,” Gantt recalls when asked about the times a non-Christian prayer has been offered before the meeting.
For now, Gantt says, the board will consider its options and is looking at how prayer is handled by other legislative bodies throughout the state.
“People feel very strongly about this issue, and we want to do something that abides by the Constitution, respects our tradition of prayer and respects our tradition of tolerance to everyone regardless of their beliefs,” he says. “It’s a tough issue, and that’s a tough balance to find.”
— David Forbes, staff writer