Board tables prayer decision

Published 12:51 pm Wednesday, August 23, 2017

By Ryan Kushner

Staff writer

The Isle of Wight County Board of Supervisors voted to table a decision on whether to change the format of its invocations before meetings, which have often invoked Jesus Christ.

County Attorney Mark Popovich advised the Board Thursday that the practice of Board members opening government meetings with a prayer to Jesus was deemed unconstitutional as a violation of the Establishment Clause by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit July 14.

Subscribe to our free email newsletter

Get the latest news sent to your inbox

The invocation procedure of the Rowan County Commissioners in North Carolina, who lost the appeal, had been identical to Isle of Wight’s, according to Popovich, which begins meetings with a Call to Order, followed by an invocation and the Pledge of Allegiance, led by each supervisor on a rotational basis.  

{mprestriction ids=”1,2,3,4,5,6″}

“It’s a procedural question,” Popovich said to the Board, noting that his legal advice to the practice was not about prohibiting anyone from praying or using the name of Jesus. “I want to keep you on the right side of the law in this particular topic.”

Over the past year, each supervisor has supplicated Jesus Christ in prayer before meetings.

Smithfield District Supervisor Dick Grice asked whether there had been an appeal to the Fourth Circuit Court’s latest decision, to which Popovich said he was not sure, but believed there was likely an intent to do so.

It was in light of the likelihood of another appeal to the Supreme Court that the Board voted to table a decision of whether to change the invocation for now.

County Administrator Randy Keaton said he contacted the Rowan County Board after the Fourth Circuit Court ruling was made in July and learned that they had changed their procedure to have a volunteer chaplain perform the prayer, rather than the Board members themselves.

“The decision was couched in terms of the concept that by limiting the invocation to the members of the Board, you have created a very small universe or isolated universe of potential faiths that could be heard for an invocation purpose,” said Popovich of the court’s ruling. “The point is that it’s supposed to be open to everybody.”

Popovich’s proposed alternatives to the procedure included having a citizen at the meeting come forward to deliver the prayer, developing a non-sectarian invocation, making the invocation into a moment of silence or dispensing with the invocation all together.

Another option would be to have the county administrator give the prayer, to which Keaton quickly shook his head “no,” sparking a few chuckles from the public in attendance at the meeting.

Keaton said that while Popovich’s concerns about the invocation were of a legal nature, his were of a financial one.

Though Rowan County’s legal fees from the lawsuit over its invocation procedure were covered by a group pro bono, “I’m sure if they had had to pay legal fees, that it could have been substantial,” Keaton said.

Carrsville District Supervisor and Chairman Rex Alphin asked whether, if challenged over the legality of the prayer, the Board could capitulate without incurring any legal fees. Popovich said that it could.

Newport District Supervisor William McCarty, who is also a pastor at Healing Waters Worship Center in Carrollton, said regarding the Board’s prayer that someone is always going to be offended by something.

“Somebody doesn’t like my tie tonight, do I need to change it for the next meeting?” McCarty said.

McCarty said he was amazed that changing the format of the invocation was even a topic of discussion.

“I’m going to support praying; of course you know where I stand on that,” he said.

Windsor District Supervisor Joel Acree said that he wanted to listen to what his constituents had to say on the matter before deciding on a change.

“My faith is my faith and I love to share it with people, but I’m not trying to push it on somebody,” Acree said. The public would also be the ones “picking up the tab” should any legal issues arise, he said.

Hardy District Supervisor Rudolph Jefferson agreed that more people needed to be asked about the matter.

McCarty suggested that he could create an online survey on the topic to reach more people.

Assistant County Administrator Don Robertson said that staff could create the survey and show it to the Board for approval before putting it out online for citizen input, to which the Board consented.

The topic of the format of the Board’s invocation attracted a number of public comments at the meeting, the vast majority of which were in favor of keeping the Christian prayer.

“If you don’t like it, then move somewhere that you don’t have to hear it,” said Deborah Hall of the Windsor District in defense of the prayer. “What’s next, you’re going to tell us to take off our crosses?”

Sam Cratch, also from the Windsor District, said that he believes America is great because it was founded on religious principles.

“When you guys invoke the name of Jesus, I’m behind you,” said Cratch. “I can’t believe I need to be up here and actually fight for that.”

Cratch noted personal misgivings with having a differing religion pray at the meetings after acknowledging the presence of the Buddhist Temple Wat Pasantidhamma in the county.

“I know my God, our God, is a jealous God, so if you try to allow anybody to come up and pray in somebody else’s name besides Jesus, well, we might have to worry about that later,” said Cratch to the Board. “But I’m on you guys’ side.”

Don Williams of the Newport District was the sole critic of the invocation during the public comment portion of the meeting.

“If you want to pray, pray in silence,” Williams said to the Board. “None of you are here to evangelize people.

“You’re all just showing off,” Williams continued. “It won’t be any better if you include other religions. They’re just other failed myths.”  {/mprestriction}