Buncombe Commissioners will keep prayer, for now

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


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29 thoughts on “Buncombe Commissioners will keep prayer, for now

  1. Thomas Todd

    To anyone of any religion who insists that public meetings be prefaced by prayer: i urge you to please re-read your Declaration of Independence and your Constitution. Your founding fathers would have little tolerance for such nonsense. The founders were by and large religious generalists who make NO reference at all to Jesus or a Christian God in any document. Check the Declaration: first, and most importantly in sentence #1 is “the laws of nature” followed second by “nature’s God”. Notice that instead of “God” that the “laws of nature” are cited first, and then supported by “God” to describe nature…and nothing else. In fact – nature is cited twice to “God” once…and that not even being a Christian God.

    Ironically, the seperation of church & state is in fact THE major new idea that Jefferson, Franklin and Washington (et al) realized must happen for this new nation to succeed and not end up as Britian, France, Spain, et al – nations of fundamentalist religious factions constantly at war with each other. If you doubt this, consider that Jefferson founded the first university in our Nation specifically without the affiliation of any church…that was precisely his intention and his point: keep it seperate.

    That anyone of any faith insists on praying before civil and public issues meetings is like insisting the space shuttle blast off with horse-drawn chariots. Its irrelevant, laughable, and backwards…unless you’re a religious fundamentalist with little actual education on the founding of your own nation or the concept of seperation of church and state.

    If you honestly think any of your Gods has the time to step in (or would even care about) and influence or intervene over a simple public meeting (with millions of meetings happening earth-wide any given moment)then perhaps you don’t really understand the holy texts of your religion…or even the basis of the founding of this nation.

    Its probably more shocking that any modern American is uneducated enough to imagine that an omnipotent being has time (or concern) to be involved in or pay attention to a mundane and monotonous civil meeting anyway. Such notions are an obvious and blatant attempt at pious, self-congratulatory display by those who have little actual personal faith in either their God or government – and who would then openly display such ignorance.

    I cannot wait until ALL of your medieval, superstitious prayers of ANY faith are banned from our public, American meetings. You have all day every day – and even quietly – to contemplate and invoke such prayers and superstitions without bringing such baggage to a public meeting. If we could have back all the wasted time back that was spent on these false and petty invocations at public meetings (and this discussion now) we might have accomplished much more public good by now. Please – pray your skulls off, be religious, do whatever you wish – just don’t waste my public Dime and Time with it.

  2. Betty Cloer Wallace

    There’s no such thing as a “pre-meeting” prayer or “pre-meeting” anything else, and there’s no such thing as an “unofficial” meeting. When a majority of a publicly elected board come together in any setting, it is a meeting–an “official” meeting.

  3. Mmmm…seems to me that religion isn’t the only thing being kept out of politics…seems like morality has been forgotten about too. Maybe prayer needs to go back in!

  4. Jennifer

    If they want to pray, they can do it in private. There is no need to do it during a public meeting. Those who do not identify with any religion always seem to be overlooked and made to feel like they are not welcome. Keep church and state separate.

  5. Why do we continually lower the bar? Instead of trying to appease the lowest common denominator, let’s expect more from ourselves and our public servants.

  6. travelah

    If the prayer is before the meeting, why would anybody object. Those that do not wish to participate can just show up a bit later or on time and miss it.

    I am curious how the “offended” define morality and how did they determine their moral standard?

  7. Betty Cloer Wallace

    Travelah asked: “If the prayer is before the meeting, why would anybody object?”

    For a public board charged with doing the business of the citizenry, if there is a quorum present, they are holding an official meeting. There is no such thing as “pre-meeting” or “before the meeting” events—and trying to call their prayers “pre-meeting” or something other than part of their meeting is subterfuge and it is illegal. Even if they come together at a ballgame or for lunch or for a ribbon-cutting, they are holding a meeting, and whatever they do must be recorded as such (sunshine laws).

    The SMOKY MOUNTAIN NEWS (1/2/10) clearly shows that county commissioners in several WNC counties are openly defying separation of church and state, and many are quite proud of their defiance. They feel secure in thinking that their board (county) will pay all the legal fees if the board is ever sued. The fallacy in that thinking is that there is precedent in NC courts declaring that INDIVIDUAL board members can be FINANCIALLY liable PERSONALLY for doing something as a public board member that they know is illegal.

    When someone eventually sues a board severally and its members individually—and wins—then we’ll see this abuse come to a screeching halt. Only the most rabid evangelicals and proselytizers will risk having to pay a settlement out of their own personal pocket.

    If I were serving on a public board that included prayer in their meetings, I would regularly object and ensure that my objection was recorded. That would be the only way to protect oneself from personal financial liability in the event someone successfully sues the board as a whole and members as individuals. And it will happen. It’s just a matter of time.


  8. travelah

    I advocate they openly defy the liberal interpretation of “separation of church and state” which by the way is not a Constitutional provision.

  9. travelah

    There is no monetary gain to be had by anybody who brings a lawsuit aganst a board member on this issue.

  10. Betty Cloer Wallace

    Travelah wrote: “There is no monetary gain to be had by anybody who brings a lawsuit against a board member on this issue.”

    That is the prevailing (but erroneous) opinion, and that is what derelict county commissioners are counting on, but it is just a matter of time before someone successfully challenges it on a board/individual premise—as has already been done successfully in public schools and other areas of state government. NC courts have upheld individual liability wherein members of public boards have knowingly taken illegal actions but tried to hide behind the full board—and they did have to pay out of their own individual pockets.

    Only a small percentage of the public knows or cares what county commissioners do, and that is why those boards have escaped legal challenge so far.

    Cecil Bothwell, et. al., should expect such a challenge and take personal precautions by objecting to the prayers and making sure their individual objections are recorded.

  11. Betty Cloer Wallace

    Travelah wrote: “I advocate they openly defy the liberal interpretation of “separation of church and state”…”

    It’s easy to advocate that someone else be defiant, but quite another matter when your own personal pocketbook is at risk!

    Advocating against an interpretation with which you disagree is legal, and admirable, but that is not the same as knowingly taking actions that break a law, especially if you are a public official. Neither public boards nor their individual members have absolute immunity.

  12. “There is no monetary gain to be had by anybody who brings a lawsuit aganst a board member on this issue.”

    Sometimes, just sometimes…… it has nothing to do with money

  13. Betty Cloer Wallace

    Travelah wrote: “Betty, step up to the plate and bring a lawsuit seeking monetary damages.”

    The point of civil rights protest is not for aggrieved persons to seek monetary damages. The point is to force lawfulness among those officials who refuse to practice it, as per the entire civil rights movement of the 1960s and 1970s, and continuing to this day. No one was seeking monetary damages then, and no one (of whom I am aware) is seeking monetary damages now. What protestors want (in this matter of prayer at public board meetings) is simple lawfulness, i.e. separation of church and state.

    School boards have gradually learned their lessons and cleaned up their act about operating outside the law regarding religion (separation of church and state) and other matters, but county commissioners have not been challenged to that degree, at least in NC, until recently.

    The emerging method of protest now (unlike the violence of prior decades) is to make public boards realize that they can be held financially liable INDIVIDUALLY for their wrongdoing. They cannot hide behind the false notion of immunity for either the collective board or for themselves individually. Every single person who knowingly does illegal things is liable for his actions, including his votes on a board if those votes are in favor of doing something illegal.

    The crux of a lawsuit regarding prayer at public board meetings could be filed against a board as a whole and against its members as individuals based on facts that an attendee or attendees at the meeting are being marginalized, dehumanized, disenfranchised, and/or otherwise alienated because of the religious practices condoned or promoted by the board.

    When some people are treated differently or forced to react differently by unlawful actions of a board, the matter extends to illegal actions by individual members that the other board members knew about but failed to acknowledge as illegal—which is why responsible board members should protect themselves by voicing their objection to the board’s prayer at meetings and having their objection recorded in minutes of the meeting.

  14. travelah

    Well , Betty, this is why I stated:

    I advocate they openly defy the liberal interpretation of “separation of church and state” which by the way is not a Constitutional provision.

    I am content to see a force in how the issue is interpreted. The very same things civil rights advocates protested against over the years have also been “lawful”. If the Court could be swayed 5-4 to the opposite opinion, I would be quite content.
    Do think Dred Scott shold have stood indefinetely?

  15. Betty Cloer Wallace

    Advocacy against an interpretation with which you disagree is legal and admirable, as is trying to get laws changed—but that is not the same as an elected official knowingly taking actions that break a law, e.g. a public official who has taken an oath to uphold the law while he sits on the board. Neither public boards nor their individual members have absolute immunity.

  16. travelah

    Why is it admirable for someone such as you or I but not admirable for that fellow over there? If the tables were turned and he was advocating something with which you agree, what would your stance be then? I applaud public officials who let their conscience afect their public work.

  17. Betty Cloer Wallace

    In a democracy, advocacy/activism is admirable for anyone and everyone, but when a person is wearing the hat of policy maker/administrator in an elected public office, he is bound by oath to uphold the law and to work within existing laws, not to defy them. Period.

    Richard Nixon learned that the hard way, that no one is “above the law.”

  18. Betty Cloer Wallace

    If anyone ever doubted that Christianity (as practiced today) is a man’s religion promoted by our government, just look at the iconic photo (surely worthy of some kind of award) in the print version of SMOKY MOUNTAIN NEWS (1/6/10) that accompanies the “Let Us Pray” articles about county commissioners’ Christian prayers at their meetings.

    I’ll describe the photo since you cannot see it online (it’s in print version only):

    In the main courtroom of the historic Haywood County Courthouse in front of the judge’s bench are five praying white men (county commissioners) sporting coats and ties and close-cropped hair and fat bellies, standing in a row with heads piously bowed and hands clasped reverentially.

    Prominently displayed on the wall immediately behind them and the judge’s bench is the life-size white marble image of a scantily-clad curvaceous voluptuous barefoot blindfolded Justice, (western man’s ideal woman) holding her scales and sword, with tablets of the Ten Commandments in large letters on each side of her.

    As serious as it is, the controversial issue of Christian prayers at public meetings is only one example of our male-dominated government promoting Christianity, a religion that promotes the subjugation of women throughout our society. Allowing Christianity to continue to encroach upon governmental practices further entrenches the subordinate role of women in our country and elsewhere, far beyond the public prayer issue.

    Jimmy Carter resigned from the Southern Baptist Convention several years ago after that male-dominated organization voted that women could not pastor their churches or sit on their boards and that women must function as secondary citizens in church, family, and society as their Holy Father so ordained.

    Carter furthermore declared that Christianity and other religions that demean women are the primary cause of (and excuse for) degradation and suffering by women and children throughout the world and that he would spend the rest of his life trying to right that wrong. We need more real men like that, in WNC and elsewhere.

    This week’s reportage by the SMOKY MOUNTAIN NEWS about religiosity in WNC government is worth a read online, even though you’ll miss the great photograph and a list of statistics taken from the past year’s recorded county commissioners’ meetings in several counties that show “Their prayers regularly endorsed Christianity with specific references to Jesus Christ and showed a marked absence of other faiths.”

    Here’s the website: http://www.smokymountainnews.com/index.html

  19. travelah

    The public servant is not bound by oath t accept one interpretation over another. If teh Courts order them to do otherwise, so be it but until they do, there are no laws being broken.

  20. Betty Cloer Wallace

    Most “public servants” do not take oaths, but elected officials and most panels and individuals appointed by elected boards do take oaths to uphold U.S. and state constitutions, as well as all existing federal and state laws. There is no choice about putting one’s personal alternative interpretation on any existing law if you are an elected official.

    Federal case precedent (2004) in North Carolina already prohibits Christian reference to Jesus Christ in prayers at meetings of county commissioners, but many commissioners are taking the risk that no one will bring a lawsuit, and they continue to defy (break) the 2004 law by praying Christian prayers themselves and by allowing invited ministers (overwhelmingly Christian) to pray at their meetings.

    The current Winston-Salem (Forsyth) case specifically involves the use of “revolving door” ministers that many boards are using to circumvent the 2004 law by saying they have no control over what the ministers will include in their prayers.

  21. Jennifer

    If the “pre-meeting” prayer was a Muslim prayer, the Christians wouldn’t let the issue slide. You can be sure they would fight to get it stopped. So why do they think it is different for us when it is a prayer for their religion?

  22. Betty Cloer Wallace

    Well, 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 Jesus Christ, Our Father, Heavenly Father, Giver Of All Good Things, and Lord “to put your hand upon these commissioners and lead them…..”

  23. Betty Cloer Wallace

    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.”

  24. Kimberly Marcus

    Let’s just get to it.
    Lord, Our God and Father… You have blessed this region of our country in many ways. Glory to you, for the freedoms we have and let us not forget the grace you have given us through forgiveness for sins through the death and resurrection of your son, Jesus Christ. Let no Christ follower be afraid to speak your name, for someday every knee will bend before His sovereign power! Give ME the strength to stand up and speak His name when the law forbids it! Praise to the Lord!

  25. Betty Cloer Wallace

    Kimberly Marcus wrote today (2/09/10) in response to posts of a month ago: “Let’s just get to it. Lord, Our God and Father… You have blessed this region of our country in many ways. Glory to you, for the freedoms we have and let us not forget the grace you have given us through forgiveness for sins through the death and resurrection of your son, Jesus Christ. Let no Christ follower be afraid to speak your name, for someday every knee will bend before His sovereign power! Give ME the strength to stand up and speak His name when the law forbids it! Praise to the Lord!”

    But, Kimberly, your statement is more than a month late…… and there has been a lot of water under the bridge (commissioners’ reconsideration and a federal court ruling in NC) since the news article above (1/04/10).

    Catch up, Kimberly, and then comment. Your concern is certainly important.

  26. Kimberly Marcus

    Who is to say what is too late or what effect our contributions may have, especially when our rights hang in the balance as they do today. The WORDS that are most important (not my own) are timeless and perfectly timed. It is not up to me to be right or to be on time, only to take my opportunities to shine the truth that is my experience. It is not for you or me to judge the timing of things not in our hands. For any commissioners who call themselves Christians: Acts 4:1-22! These issues are still being reported on in all of our surrounding counties, and as far as I can see, my prayer is not out of time. After all, you read it.

  27. Jennifer


    But that was all it was, a prayer. There was no comment at all. Go ahead and pray if you want, but this is for discussions.

    Please give us your opinion. I’m truly interested. If they were having Muslim prayers or prayers of any other religion, would you be upset with that? Or would you welcome it?

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