Commissioners to have rotating list of religious leaders pray before meetings begin

Published 2:39 pm Wednesday, February 8, 2023

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Cris Noble, a minister at Trinity Methodist Church in Belhaven, led a prayer before the Beaufort County Board of Commissioners meeting began on Monday, Feb. 6. His prayer set a precedent for how prayers will be conducted at future commissioners meetings. 

Noble was asked to pray before the commissioners meeting, because on Jan. 19 the board received a letter from an attorney with Americans United for the Separation of Church and State claiming the board was in violation of the Establishment Clause within the First Amendment. They were in violation, because they started meetings with a prayer by Commissioner Jerry Langley, a minister at Zion Grove Church of Christ, Disciples of Christ in Columbia, North Carolina, according to the letter. 

The attorney with Americans United argued that starting meetings with Christian prayers, asking people in the room to stand and join the commissioners in prayer and having a commissioner pray could be seen as Beaufort County choosing Christianity as its official religion. The Establishment Clause prohibits U.S. governments from declaring a religion. 

(At Monday night’s meeting, Commissioner Frankie Waters asked meeting attendees to remain seated during the prayer) 

The letter from Americans United claimed prayers could make some Beaufort County residents feel like they are not accepted members of the community and by having a Christian prayer, commissioners do not represent all residents’ religious beliefs or choice not to follow a religion. 

Once Noble finished praying, Commissioner Frankie Waters began the meeting. The board members stood as Commissioner Hood Richardson recited the Pledge of Allegiance. 

When the commissioners addressed the subject of prayer, Commissioner Langley began by saying he does not have an issue with a member of clergy delivering a prayer before a meeting officially begins; however, he does have an issue with a person sending a complaint to Americans United rather than addressing commissioners in person during the public comment period. In conversation, the commissioners revealed that a woman from Ohio sent a complaint to Americans United who then contacted the board. 

“Anybody who has a problem with the commissioners’ praying they should have stepped there to that podium…,” Langley said pointing to a podium that faces the Board of Commissioners in their meeting room. 

“It just bothers me that people who have absolutely, positively nothing to do with Beaufort County is now trying to tell us how we should conduct ourselves,” he continued. 

Waters followed Langley, sharing that for the past eight years, an elected official has delivered a prayer at the start of commissioners meetings and has asked everyone in the room to stand with them. Waters said he was not in favor of having a silent prayer or a moment of silence replace a prayer said aloud. Instead, he thought having a rotating list of religious leaders come in and pray before a meeting begins would be a compromise. 

Commissioner Stan Deatherage echoed Langley’s and Waters’ comments about having a rotating list, but that it should include leaders of beliefs other than Christianity. 

Richardson was in opposition to Waters’ idea of having a brief, one-page policy on how commissioners handle prayer before meetings, because it could create potential “risks” and “problems.” At an earlier meeting, Richardson said a written policy could put a “target” on the board and it could be “attacked.” 

Commissioners Randy Walker, Ed Booth and John Rebholz agreed with Richardson about not having a written policy, until one is required. Until then, a rotating list of religious leaders will say a prayer before a commissioners meeting officially begins.

Any leader wishing to say a prayer can contact Katie Mosher, Clerk to the Board of Commissioners.