At their Jan. 5 meeting, the Buncombe County commissioners will consider substituting a moment of silence for the official prayer that has traditionally marked the start of their meetings, according to County Attorney Michael Frue. Contrary to an earlier announcement from Frue, the commissioners have not yet made a decision.
"I probably erred by implying they had taken action or made a decision," Frue told Xpress. "I shouldn't have assumed they would necessarily follow my advice. No action has been taken, and we're looking at several options."
The commissioners discussed the matter in closed session at their Dec. 1 meeting.
"I just apprised them of the status of current legal cases, and they discussed some possibilities," Frue explained.
One of those cases is a lawsuit seeking to ban Forsyth County's pre-meeting prayer. Frue said that Forsyth's policy and Buncombe's are similar enough for him to be concerned.
The U.S. Constitution forbids the establishment or endorsement of a state religion, he noted, yet the overwhelming majority of invocations end up being Christian.
On Dec. 2, Frue sent the following announcement to assorted local government officials:
"Beginning with its Jan. 5, 2010, meeting, the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners have determined that it will no longer include an invocation as an agenda item and the Chair will simply ask for a moment of silence before opening the meeting."
The announcement went on to describe the situation Forsyth faces and his legal reasoning for recommending a change in the current policy.
"On Nov. 9, 2009, a magistrate judge with the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of N.C. issued a recommendation of judgment against Forsyth County, as the practice violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment of the United States Constitution," wrote Frue, noting that while Forsyth is still contesting the decision, the legal costs would be considerable if the county's appeal were denied.
"The Forsyth case is based on facts establishing that out of 33 invocations prior to meetings, only 7 did not contain some reference to Jesus, Jesus Christ, Christ, Savior or the Trinity, and none of those 33 invocations invoked another deity associated with any faith other than Christianity. Such statistics are no doubt common here in the Bible Belt, and I believe are also fairly representative of such a sampling before our board," Frue noted.
Under current federal law, prayers before the opening of an official government meeting must be nonsectarian in nature and avoid endorsing one faith or denomination over another. But that goal, Frue asserts, is probably unattainable.
"I believe that selecting clergy or other invocators at random and leaving the invocation content up to them will likely always lead to violations," the announcement concluded.
The proposal has already sparked a sometimes-angry backlash. In an e-mail release, outgoing Asheville City Council member Carl Mumpower criticized the announcement, saying: "It is my hope the new Council demonstrates more courage and conviction than others may muster in defending the right to pray in political chambers. Anything less mocks both the Constitution and those who value their freedom of religion and the opportunities found within."
Currently, Council members take turns leading prayers — a policy that Mumpower maintained is in line with the First Amendment.
"Council has no procedures or laws determining how Council members pray — and the prayers vary significantly among the members. Our prayers are not controlled or orchestrated events, and those in attendance are free to respond, or not, as their values lead them to."
Conservative activist Don Yelton was even more blunt in his condemnation, and he sent out an e-mail calling on county residents to oppose the move.
"I am reminded of what some [Jewish] friends told me. They did not know how fast it could happen: Hitler," he wrote. "We are knocking on the doors of hell right now. Please get your pastors to get awake and take a stand."