Saturday, January 6, 2007
Forsyth commissioners to stick with prayer policy
ACLU had objected to 'sectarian' nature of ministers'
By Jim Sparks
The Forsyth County Board of Commissioners isn't going to
change anything about how it conducts prayers at the start
of its meetings.
In October, the American Civil Liberties Union of North Carolina sent a letter to Winston-Salem City Council and the Forsyth
commissioners asking for changes in the way prayers are
offered at the beginning of public meetings
ACLU officials said that city and county officials were
running afoul of the U.S. Constitution because the
ministers they ask to lead invocations frequently refer to
specific deities in their prayer. The ACLU cited several
court rulings around the county that indicate sectarian
prayer is not legal during public meetings because of its
Sectarian prayer is prayer that recognizes a particular
religious sect, faith or a specific deity, such as Jesus
Christ, Yahweh and Allah.
Gloria Whisenhunt, the chairwoman of the board of
commissioners, said yesterday that the board reached a
consensus decision Thursday to not change the unwritten
procedures guiding invocations. The board has followed
those unwritten procedures for years. The decision came in
a closed session during the board's weekly briefing.
Typically, county officials randomly pick religious
leaders from throughout the county to offer the opening
prayer at regular meetings of the board. Those invited to
give the invocation will be allowed to keep praying the
way they want to pray, Whisenhunt said.
The next county commissioners' meeting with an invocation
is scheduled for Monday night.
"There will be no restrictions," Whisenhunt said. "We
don't show partiality to any faith. We're just going to
continue doing what we're doing now. We have a rotation
(of ministers to give the invocation) and invite different
faiths. We feel what we're doing is right for us."
Civil libertarians urged the commissioners to reconsider
"It's very disappointing," said Jennifer Rudinger, the
executive director of the ACLU of North Carolina. "It's not very often we see local
commissioners, when made aware of the law, choose to take
an action like this. They've chosen to send a message to
members of other (minority) faiths that their faith is
less valued, less welcome and less equal."
Rudinger said that her group got involved after receiving
many complaints from city and county citizens upset at the
nature of prayers being given before public meetings.
She said that the organization would keep looking into the
issue while considering what to do next.
Many residents have said they would support a stand by the
commissioners, even if it meant that Forsyth County would
have to spend public money to fight a lawsuit.
Although the city council hasn't taken an official
position on the issue either, most of the ministers
invited by the city to give the invocation since the ACLU
letter have made no reference to Jesus or any other deity.
The city has been considering whether to substitute a
moment of silence as an alternative to a prayer at the
start of meetings.
Steve Weston, a city resident and the president of the
local chapter of Americans United for the Separation of
Church and State, said yesterday that although he was
sorry to hear the county's decision, he wasn't surprised.
"I think it's a travesty," Weston said. "Those people took
an oath to uphold the Constitution. I wish they would do
that. We need to respect religious minorities."
The commissioners discussed the invocation issue in closed
session on the grounds that it was a legal issue covered
by attorney-client privilege, one exception to state
open-meeting rules that typically require most business
conducted by a public body to be done in open session.
The law says that any policy changes must be done
publicly, but Whisenhunt noted that the board didn't take
any vote or set policy.
A majority of the board simply decided not to do anything
with regard to the existing policy, she said.