ROWAN COUNTY, N.C. (CBS Charlotte) – The Rowan County Board of Commissioners has come under fire recently for its inclusion of Jesus’ name during prayers offered before its official meetings.
However, public scrutiny and existing litigation prohibiting exclusionary actions during government proceedings did not stop the Rowan County community from showing support by gathering en masse Monday for a religion-infused night.
An assembly of area residents came together in the lobby of the county administration building during the board’s regular meeting time to join together in singing hymns and conducting prayers.
Additionally, outside reports state that the county commissioners’ meeting room was filled with sounds of passionate speaking and emphatic cries of “Amen” offered in response.
The religious tone of the support was inspired by a recent order from the American Civil Liberties Union of North Carolina to cease use of the phrase “… in Jesus’ name” during pre-meeting prayers.
Commission Chairman Chad Mitchell told CBS Charlotte that members of the community have largely backed up the actions of the board.
“We have received an outpouring of community support … to continue doing things the way we have been,” he said, citing Monday’s overwhelming meeting attendance as an example. “The meeting room was full, the overflow chamber was full, and the lobby was about as full as it could be as well – we could hear [singing] from the meeting chamber when things got quiet.”
Mitchell added that out of the 20 individuals who spoke that night, 19 expressed support for maintaining the status quo.
However, according to Mike Meno, communications manager for the ACLU-NC, the board’s actions only serve to exclude members of the communities they are supposed to serve fully.
“Our office received numerous complaints from religious minorities and other citizens who were honestly offended or felt alienated by sectarian prayer,” he told CBS Charlotte. “[The commissioners] are supposed to represent everyone, and be inclusive of all meetings.”
“To start public meetings with religion-specific prayer basically sends a message of endorsing one set of views over another,” Meno added.
Katy Parker, legal director of the ACLU-NC, told CBS Charlotte that the commission will have until just after March 5 to decide whether they wish to change their ways, or keep them as-is and risk further action taken against them.
“We hope they will follow the law, which is very clear in this area,” she said. “They swore to uphold [it] when they became commissioners.”
The board does not wish to change its ways, though.
“My personal preference, along with five other commissioners … is to continue on as we have been,” Mitchell said. “This is the way things have been done in Rowan County as far back as anyone’s memory goes.”
The commissioner said that he values the inclusion of prayer as a means of seeking guidance from a higher power.
“It’s important to ask for wisdom,” he said. “And it happens to be that all five commissioners at the moment are Christian.”
The request was made of the Rowan County board approximately one month after the United States Supreme Court elected to let stand a ruling that Forsyth County Commissioners had committed unconstitutional acts by conducting opening prayers with decidedly Christian overtones, a decision handed down by the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals.
“Endorsing one religion over others [during governmental proceedings] is a constitutional violation supported by courts,” Meno said, stating that Rowan County had received more complaints than other counties in the state. “[That] is the law of the land.”
Parker also noted that, in addition to being illegal, such actions could also be viewed as insensitive.
“A lot of times, what gets lost is how it feels to be a religious minority,” she noted. “What gets lost is the fact that religious minorities just want to go to meetings that stay neutral on matters of religion … so no one feels like an outsider in their own government.”
The commissioners feel that their actions do not violate the Constitution, and that those protesting are ignoring portions of the same document that call for the freedom to exercise one’s faith.
“[O]pening a meeting in prayer is a well-established tradition in the United states, [and] it comes down to the intent of the individual praying,” Mitchell said. “There may have been a group of people, small or large … who need to turn their hyper-sensitivity down a little.”