Group tells commissioners it’s not ok to pray after meetings begin

Published 4:27 pm Friday, February 3, 2023

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The Beaufort County Board of Commissioners have been asked to change how prayers are conducted at the beginning of their meetings, because it appears to be involution of the Establishment Clause within the First Amendment. 

Commissioners received a letter two weeks ago from Ian Smith, a staff attorney with Americans United (Americans United) for the Separation of Church and State, claiming the board was in violation of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. 

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Americans United stated they received a complaint describing the Commissioners’ routine of having a Christian prayer at the start of their regular meetings delivered by board member Jerry Langley who is a minister at Zion Grove Church of Christ, Disciples of Christ, in Columbia, North Carolina. Those in the commissioners’ meeting room are invited to stand and join him in prayer which is another issue  Americans United and the person behind the complaint take umbrage with. 

Americans United would like to see the end of Christian prayers delivered after a meeting begins. They believe prayers should be removed, because prayers do not reflect all Beaufort County citizens’ religious beliefs or decision to not be religious. Also, they believe Christian prayers could make a non-Christian or non religious citizens not feel as if they are accepted members of Beaufort County, and asking people to stand during prayer could force someone into participation. This is in addition to being in violation of the Establishment Clause. 

“The Board of Commissioners exists to represent all citizens of Beaufort County, regardless of faith or belief. The practice of county officials composing and reciting official prayers sends the message that nonbelievers and adherents of faiths that do not wish to participate in the Board’s prayers are not accepted members of the community and pressuring the audience to stand for the prayer coerces them to participate in the Board’s religious activities,” the letter from Americans United reads. “These practices violate the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Please put a stop to them.”

The Establishment Clause does not allow the U.S. government to declare a nationwide religion. It also prohibits the government from “having a preference of one religion over another or supporting a religious idea with no identifiable secular purpose,” according to Ballotpedia. 

Americans United noted Marsh v. Chambers (1983) and Town of Greece v. Galloway (2014) – two U.S. Supreme Court cases – allowed prayer at government meetings; however, the person conducting the prayer was either an invited member of clergy or a permanent chaplain who did not have influence over decisions made by elected officials. 

“When a prayer is delivered by a member of the clergy, citizens may understand it to reflect the views of the clergy member, not the government…But prayer led by a lawmaker suggests that the government itself is promoting the religious views articulated in the prayer,” Smith wrote in the letter from Americans United. 

Smith suggested the Board of County Commissioners replace prayer with a moment of silence to be “in compliance with the First Amendment and to respect the religious diversity of Beaufort County’s citizens…” He also recommended should commissioners keep invocations at their meetings, then they should adopt a policy where “private citizens are selected based on neutral criteria” who “do not discriminate against minority faiths or non-believers. And either way, the Board must stop asking the audience to stand or otherwise participate in the prayer.” 

Americans United would like to see the Board of Commissioners respond by February 19. 

The Board of County Commissioners discussed the letter during their planning retreat on Jan. 27. 

They did not make a formal decision during the planning meeting; however, they will discuss it at their regular meeting on Monday, February 6. 

On Jan. 27, Chairman Frankie Waters asked if a member of clergy could lead an invocation at their upcoming meeting. 

Waters wrote to the Daily News, he supports “inviting religious leaders in our community to have prayer before the commissioners agenda is approved. The board’s policy for prayer should be opened for discussion and approval.” 

Commissioner Hood Richardson was vehemently opposed to the idea of having a policy written and approved, because he was concerned it could get “attacked” and place a “target” on the Board. 

He recommended that a rotating list of clergy members could come in to say a prayer a few minutes before meetings begin at 5:30, and remove prayer from meeting agendas. Clergy members and commissioners would have to be “quick on their feet” to say a prayer and start the meeting on time.