Officials react to prayer ban

Published 6:17 pm Saturday, July 27, 2013

Last week, a federal judge barred Rowan County commissioners from starting their meetings with a sectarian prayer.

The lawsuit was filed in March by three plaintiffs who objected, not to the presence of prayer in the meetings, but to the fact that nearly all of the prayers were offered up “in Jesus’ name,” and therefore exclusionary to people of different religions.

Since the lawsuit was filed in March, local councils and boards have kept their eye on the case, watching for the outcome: prayer has historically been very much a part of meetings in Beaufort County.

According to Archie Jennings, his role as Washington’s mayor prompted him to give the issue a lot of thought. Every city council meeting begins with a prayer—a rotating schedule of the council determines who offers the prayer. But even if the tradition is to begin with prayer, the actual term used on the city agenda is “invocation.”

Jennings said there’s a difference: the city makes room in its agenda for an invocation, but an invocation means different things to different people. While the meeting has traditionally started with a prayer, it’s not required, he explained — a poem, a moment of silence, even a different type of prayer could be offered as well.

“It’s our tradition and it’s a tradition I feel very strongly about continuing,” Jennings said. “I’m very comfortable with the way we conduct our meetings. I don’t think we’ve ever done anything to exclude anyone.”

Jennings acknowledged that it’s a complicated issue, and in the city’s case, it’s compounded by the fact that Councilman Ed Moultrie is an ordained minister.

“Are we really saying an ordained minister can’t offer a prayer on behalf of the council?” Jennings asked.

In Chocowinity, the Rowan County suit prompted the Board of Commissioners to make a significant, but temporary, change to their monthly meetings, according to Mayor Jimmy Mobley.

Town meetings in Chocowinity had started with a prayer since the town was incorporated until the Rowan County lawsuit was brought to commissioners’ attention early this year. On the advice of Town Attorney Keith Mason, it was decided that the monthly meetings would begin with a moment of silence — that is, until the outcome of the Rowan County lawsuit was decided.

“Everybody was kind of upset about it,” Mobley said of the switch from prayer to silence. “None of our commissioners liked it, but we did what we had to do.”