Surry BOS to start meetings with prayer

Published 7:11 pm Tuesday, March 10, 2020

By Frederic Lee

Staff writer

SURRY — The Surry County Board of Supervisors adopted a policy to hold a prayer at the onset of each Board of Supervisors meeting Thursday. 

Board of Supervisors Chairman Robert Elliott suggested starting each monthly Board meeting with a prayer a few weeks ago at a Board of Supervisors retreat, stating that a prayer led by a member of the county’s religious or spiritual community at each meeting would give them an opportunity to be involved in the meetings and may improve community relations in Surry County as a whole. {mprestriction ids=”1,2,3,4,5,6″}

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Elliott is the pastor at Morning Star Baptist Church in Surry County’s Spring Grove area, according to the church’s website. 

While the three other board members at the retreat didn’t react negatively to the idea, Bacon’s Castle District Supervisor Judy Lyttle — who has been on the board for more than 20 years — said that she recalled a time in the past when the Board of Supervisors would start meetings off with a prayer, which resulted in pushback from the community. 

Because of the flack that prayer at the Board meetings had caused, the Board of Supervisors cut it from the agenda and, eventually, also cut the moment of silence, said Lyttle. 

The moment of silence has since returned as part of the regular meeting, but the prayer hasn’t. 

Not yet, at least. 

Elliott said the prayer wouldn’t always stem from a single religious denomination but from various ones in the county, adding that there were numerous churches that could have one of their representatives lead the prayer.  

During the retreat, Surry District Supervisor Tim Calhoun floated the idea of having the prayer start five minutes prior to the 7 p.m. Board of Supervisors regular meeting, as a means of not upsetting those who don’t want to sit through it. 

In response, Elliott said he liked that suggestion as a potential solution, but that idea was not mentioned when the policy was adopted by the Board of Supervisors Thursday.

The Isle of Wight County Board of Supervisors recently reformulated its invocation policy in response to an appellate court decision. 

In 2017, a Fourth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals decision ruled that elected officials violate the Establishment Clause of the U.S. Constitution when they lead a prayer before government meetings. The Fourth Circuit includes Virginia. 

The next year, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear an appeal of that case, which involved elected officials in Rowan County, N.C. That Board had regularly prayed to Jesus Christ before meetings, which is specific to Christianity. 

In response to that decision, the Isle of Wight County Board of Supervisors members stopped the practice of leading a prayer at board meetings themselves, opting instead to have each board member invite a religious figure in the community to come do it. 

The Isle of Wight County Board of Supervisors also voted to include all county boards, commissions and other entities under the new policy. 

In the case that the invited person doesn’t arrive, a board or commission member can proceed with the prayer as long as it doesn’t become a regular occurrence, according to County Attorney Bobby Jones, adding that members shouldn’t plan to give the prayer themselves. 

Prior to that, Board members would lead a prayer at the onset of each meeting and would regularly reference Jesus Christ. 

 Surry Board of Supervisors Vice Chairman Michael Drewry wasn’t present at the retreat on Thursday. {/mprestriction}