- 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."
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."
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 firstname.lastname@example.org or at 251-1333, ext. 137.