Buncombe Commissioners: On a meeting and a prayer

  • Buncombe County Board of Commissioners Jan. 5 meeting
  • Mills Gap residents decry inaction on CTS contamination

"Heavenly Father, we thank you so much for this privilege to meet together," the Rev. Ralph Sexton Jr. of Biltmore Trinity Baptist Church intoned over a roomful of bowed heads. "We thank you for the gift you've given us to have a great heritage as a republic and a people of faith. We are so blessed. We thank you for our founding fathers and their faith. We thank you for our families, our friends; we thank you for this great place to live and work."

Still praying: The Buncombe County Board of Commissioners bow their heads during the Jan. 5 pre-meeting prayer. The 20-year-old ritual has become controversial as the commissioners considered replacing it with a moment of silence. Photo by Jonathan Welch

Sexton went on to ask for blessings for local families and the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners, before whom he stood. "In Christ's name," he concluded, and the board proceeded with its Jan. 5 meeting.

Since 1989, the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners has opened its meetings with a prayer — almost always a Christian one — but that ritual has come under increased scrutiny over the last month, as questions were raised about the constitutionality of initiating the public's business with a sectarian religious invocation.

During closed session at the board's Dec. 2 meeting, the commissioners considered replacing the prayer with a moment of silence, after reviewing a court case currently proceeding against Forsyth County. A memo from County Attorney Michael Frue to local officials implied that the board had already decided to replace the prayer. They hadn't, and the commissioners later announced that they would publicly consider the matter on Jan. 5. Over the holidays, however, board Chair David Gantt called the rest of the commissioners individually — a conference call would have violated the state's open-meetings law — and they decided to keep the prayer in place until the Forsyth case is resolved.

But despite that decision (and the fact that the issue wasn't on the agenda), the board got an earful — in a public-comment period that took up more than half the meeting — from both supporters of the current practice and those who believe such prayers are inappropriate for a governing body.

"We have lived under the motto 'one nation under God' for over 100 years; we became a great nation because we believe in prayer," West Asheville resident Hope Herrick told the board. "There is a group of people that is trying to take God and Jesus out of our society, and they are delighted that the commissioners may not allow prayer at meetings. I hope you will not cower down before a group of people that wants to turn our country from a god-fearing, god-loving nation into a dictatorship."

In fact, the words "under God" in the above-cited phrase were added to the Pledge of Allegiance in 1954. "In God We Trust" was adopted by Congress as the national motto in 1956.

Alex Cury, who chairs the local chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, commended the board for considering a moment of silence instead of prayer.

"The law of the United States has long been clear and is very well established: The only way it's constitutional to pray in a government session is a nonsectarian prayer," she said. "That means no reference to Jesus Christ or Muhammad or Buddha. Otherwise it's as though this body is supporting Christianity; it's as though this body is preaching, or establishing, religion, and that is against the First Amendment of the Constitution. Allowing a few moments of silence is the perfect solution: because then people who think it's important to pray will have an opportunity to pray, but others who are not part of the same faith tradition will not feel compelled. The government needs to be neutral in matters of religion."

County resident Alan Robinson, a Quaker, joked that "We worship in silence, so [a moment of silence] would be an endorsement of our religion, if you ask me," adding that the board is probably best off with no prayer or moment of silence.
"I've never seen a business meeting open with a prayer," he pointed out. "This is a business meeting, designed to conduct the public business; they are not devotional exercises. I think everyone who attends church would think it highly inappropriate if the government came in and told them they had to conduct their services according to Robert's Rules of Order."

Others saw the move as an attack on tradition.

"This country is in a sorry state when we start allowing religions like atheists and Wiccans to decide how our government is run: It's unacceptable," Skyland resident Aaron Penland declared. "If these people don't want to live here, they can go to another country."

"You owe the citizens of Buncombe County an apology:" Activist Don Yelton criticizes the board for deciding to keep prayer via telephone instead of discussing it in an open meeting. Photo by Jonathan Welch


The Rev. Wendell Runion characterized the criticisms of prayer as the work of dissatisfied outsiders.

"You're making no laws in praying before your meetings," argued Runion, defending the practice's constitutionality. "Our heritage in Western North Carolina is Christian. We have many people that come in from outside and try to deny us our privileges as Christians." The state ACLU chapter filed the Forsyth case on behalf of two county residents.

Jupiter resident Don Yelton took a different tack, saying the commissioners had violated state law by not deliberating the issue in an open session.

"General policy matters may not be discussed in closed session," noted Yelton. "There has been an abuse of attorney/client privileges by this Board of Commissioners for a long time. It doesn't mean you can talk about dogs running [loose] and what you can put on the agenda: That's general policy matters. This doesn't have anything to do with the prayer, folks — it has to do with you discussing this behind closed doors. I think you owe the citizens of Buncombe County an apology."


Yelton asked the commissioners to contact the state attorney general's office and request an opinion on whether their handling of the matter was legal.

According to attorney Mike Tadych of the North Carolina Press Association, making a decision via serial phone calls violates the spirit of the law, but to date, the practice has not been ruled illegal.

"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,'" notes Tadych, 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."

CTS remarks censored?


Also during public comment, neighbors of the contaminated former CTS of Asheville site renewed their criticism of what they see as lack of action by the commissioners — and demanded that missing video of their previous comments be posted on the county's Web site.

"Contamination continues to spread: TCE [a suspected human carcinogen found in ground water in the area] is showing up in surface water," noted Penland. "The EPA is telling us that might be from farm equipment. How likely is that?"  Penland also said he finds it suspicious that his and fellow activists' remarks during the public-comment section of the board's Nov. 17 meeting are largely absent from the video available on the county's Web site. The video cuts off about 20 seconds into Penland's remarks, though the printed minutes of the meeting do include those criticisms.

"When we come to you and ask for help, we come in faith that the message we put out is going to be put out, and we're going to continue."

"We don't censor or edit anything: that's not the policy of this board," Gantt answered, in reply to the criticisms, saying the board's clerk would look into the matter.

Meanwhile, Patricia Pinner, who lives on Chapel Hill Church Road, once again called on the board to help the city of Asheville provide municipal water to area residents, so they wouldn't run the risk of drinking and bathing in contaminated well water.

The commissioners have previously stopped short of taking such a step, saying they haven't seen proof that there's an imminent danger to homes except for one contaminated well that was connected to city water last August. But Penner, echoing Penland, said the contamination is spreading through the area.

"There are 14 homes that don't have municipal water. We're the closest to the CTS plant who haven't received municipal water," said Penner. "This is a problem you can do something about. EPA tested our well on Oct.6, and our well is testing above average for a toxin: bis(2-ethylhexyl)phthalate [a compound often used in manufacturing plastics]. My neighbor also received a call that the creek that runs next to her property is testing positive for TCE. My son plays in the creek regularly; the contamination is spreading, and the rain and snow we've had could make it worse."

David Forbes can be reached at dforbes@mountainx.com or at 251-1333, ext. 137.

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19 thoughts on “Buncombe Commissioners: On a meeting and a prayer

  1. Betty Cloer Wallace

    For the record, at the Macon County Commissioners’ meeting last night (1/11/10) a local invited reverend prayed—as the second item on the agenda—and invoked the names of Jesus Christ, Our Father, Heavenly Father, Giver Of All Good Things, and Lord “to put your hand upon these commissioners and lead them…..”

    Macon County Commissioner Chairman Ronnie Beale had previously stated to the SMOKY MOUNTAIN NEWS (1/6/10): “The constituents of Macon County that I represent would agree that a Christian prayer is appropriate.”

  2. harmonyfb

    Mr. Penland, it may come as a shock to you, but Wiccans and atheists (and Jews and Hindus and Buddhists and a myriad of adherents of other religions) are citizens – it’s THEIR government, too. How dare you suggest that non-Christian residents aren’t welcome in your municipality! There’s a word for that sort of behavior: *Bigotry*.

  3. Betty Cloer Wallace

    Constitutional protections are intended to protect the minority, not the majority.

  4. JWTJr

    “Constitutional protections are intended to protect the minority, not the majority.”

    Where did the founding fathers say that? The entire system is set up to be run by majority and super-majority votes. That is to protect the majority FROM a minority.

  5. Teleri

    Ah, Mr. Penland. What Mr. Jefferson would have to say to YOU I shudder to think. Nothing nice, for sure. John Adams was no friend to organized religion either. You might try actually READING what our founding fathers had to say about religion in general, & separation of church & state particularly.
    As for Wiccans, atheists & all those other troublesome people who don’t believe what you do, guess what? We are here because we or our ancestors came here for FREEDOM from the kind of religious control you are here advocating!!
    The whole POINT of the separation of church & state is to protect everyone’s own individual/group faith from being marginalized by anyone else’s.
    So why don’t YOU go to some other country, where everybody worships JUST as you do? This ain’t the place for that nonsense.

  6. Some people seem stuck back in the 15th century when people fled Europe to establish America & to escape religious oppression. The more things change the more they stay the same.

  7. Betty Cloer Wallace

    Oh, my. Which is worse?

    1. Elected officials who renege on their oaths to uphold the law

    2. Exclusionist self-righteous Christian preachers

    3. Cartoonist Molton’s insulting Appalachian stereotypes

  8. TimInNC

    Rev. Wendell Runion: “Our heritage in Western North Carolina is Christian. We have many people that come in from outside and try to deny us our privileges as Christians.”

    Privileges as Christians? Really? Exactly when did the United Staes start giving special privileges to Christians, or any other religion for that matter. I think this comment goes to the root of the issue. These people feel they deserve special treatment because of their religion. They think the Constitution and the law of the land are trumped by their own version of their mythology. My version of my mythology dosen’t give me “special privileges” and neitehr does theirs.

  9. GoodGrief

    Ummm…KeepAVLFreaky….that’s the problem. You don’t care. You think this is about ‘evolution’ and its not. Its about a majority of people who believe in God, or another higher power, and want a simple 30 seconds to find some sort of peace and clarity in their complicated lives. If more people truly cared and BELIEVED, whether religiously, spiritually, whatever, this world would be less of a pile of detritus and less on its way to moral corruption. It is “in God WE trust” not “in YOU we trust”, thankfully. A church is a public places…want to ban prayer there? When I take my family out to dinner and we pray before a meal in a restaurant, am I violating your rights? Do you go to sporting events, in public, and turn your back on the flag during the National Anthem? This is deeper than you will ever understand.

  10. Piffy!

    [b]Do you go to sporting events, in public, and turn your back on the flag during the National Anthem? This is deeper than you will ever understand. [/b]

    Wow. You really find that an apt comparison to prayer at a publicly-funded government meeting? You think a privately-owned baseball team and the national anthem have anything to do with our elected officials and a public meeting?

    Might i suggest, mister chainsaw, you actually [i]read[/i] the Constitution, and many of the Framers thoughts on the ideas of separation of church and state? Because you clearly have no idea what you are talking about and your comparisons are wildly off-target.

    [b]A church is a public places…want to ban prayer there?[/b]

    Really? It’s a public place? I can go into any church and just hang out? It’s supported by tax dollars? Like a city park? Are church officials elected by the general public?

  11. Piffy!

    [b]”We have lived under the motto ‘one nation under God’ for over 100 years; we became a great nation because we believe in prayer,” West Asheville resident Hope Herrick told the board. “There is a group of people that is trying to take God and Jesus out of our society, and they are delighted that the commissioners may not allow prayer at meetings. I hope you will not cower down before a group of people that wants to turn our country from a god-fearing, god-loving nation into a dictatorship.”[/b]

    THIS, right here, illustrates the point perfectly. This woman has no idea what she’s talking about. In reality it should be: “There is a group of people that is trying to inject their God and Jesus into our society, and they are clueless to the fact that the commissioners are not in their right to inject fundamentalist nonsense into public meetings. I hope you will not cower down before a group of people that wants to turn our country from a religion-fearing, freedom-loving nation into a dictatorship based on religion.

  12. Piffy!

    [b]Oh and chainsaw, tell me which sporting events start with the national anthem? I am not aware of any.[/b]

    SRSLY?

  13. GoodGrief

    Well…AVL Freakky…there’s this sport called Baseball…..most popular sport in America….and sometimes when American athletes win gold medals in something called “The Olympics” they stand up on something called a podium and the flag is raised and they play the National Anthem. Does that help?
    I was never forcing my beliefs or really anything upon you at all. Religion will always be in politics regardless of what anyone says. And Pkippy, the Basilica is always open, as are most churches in the area, anyone can ‘hang out’ in them any time, maybe you could give it a try!

  14. Piffy!

    [b]Well chainsaw, I have been to plenty of MLB games and have never heard the national anthem being played.[/b]

    Are you sure about that? Do you always arrive late?

    Chainsaw: I’m still curious about your “A church is a public place” statement. Care to clarify?

  15. Piffy!

    [b]Cartoonist Molton’s insulting Appalachian stereotypes [/b]

    Wouldn’t insulting a stereotype be a [i]good[/i] thing?

  16. PatD

    This country is in a sorry state when we start allowing religions like atheists and Wiccans to decide how our government is run

    hehe, religions like atheists.
    Funny.

  17. jonneedee

    Constitutional protections are intended to protect the minority, not the majority.”

    “Where did the founding fathers say that? The entire system is set up to be run by majority and super-majority votes. That is to protect the majority FROM a minority.”

    You’re wrong about that, JW, and making it up as you go along isn’t a real substitute for actually knowing – the founding fathers did say EXACTLY what the first poster said: Thomas Jefferson, in particualr, said that the design of our republic was intended to “protect the minority from the tyranny of the majority” – that being why we have a representative repubilc and not a democracy. If you’re a modern conservative, tho, I understand that you wouldn’t know that – you’re supposed to ignore everything Jeffrerson said, like “it is our intention to erect a wall of seperation between Church and State” – yep, Jefferson said that too. Soon, though, modern conservatives will have succeeded in their drive to completely erase Jefferson’s legacy from our history, at which time they’ll finally be able to do as they please with our system. After all, the “reverend” quoted in this article cites “the faith of our founding fathers” in his evil prayer – a PERFECT example of historical revisionism, since Jefferson – AGAIN – was very outspoken about his own hostility toward, and sucpicion of, Christianity. Yep, Neocons are going to have to totally remove Jefferson from our history books, there’s just no other way to accomplish their goals..

  18. Betty Cloer Wallace

    Shouldn’t MtnX do some investigative reporting on this? It’s a serious local matter, and scary.

    At least one of the Buncombe County Commissioners has stated publicly that he is amenable to having the Liberty Council “defend” the board regarding prayer at their meetings. Liberty Council is an appendage of Jerry Falwell’s private Christian Liberty University, and the head of the Liberty Council law firm is Dean of the Liberty University School of Law.

    According to Liberty Council’s offer in a letter to the commissioners, the Liberty Council would help the commissioners develop a prayer policy. Then….. “Should Buncombe County adopt a policy consistent with Liberty Counsel’s advice or continue a practice consistent with Liberty Counsel’s advice, and should Buncombe County ever be called upon to defend that policy or practice in court, Liberty Counsel stands ready to defend such a policy and practice at no cost to the citizens of Buncombe County.”

    http://www.citizen-times.com/article/20100118/NEWS01/301180026

    Do we really want the Jerry Falwell organizations to help us develop a prayer policy, and then defend it in court? (Doing it pro bono is their bait.)

    The Liberty Council law firm has some pretty scary ties to militant groups that are anti-everything that does not fit their ultra-conservative agenda, and getting involved with them would create national negative attention that will forevermore hurt us economically. We’d certainly be expunged from all the “best places to…” lists.

  19. bobaloo

    Oh and chainsaw, tell me which sporting events start with the national anthem? I am not aware of any.

    Dude, even the freakin roller derby starts with the anthem. You can’t be serious.

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