Public prayer a controversial issue
August 6, 2010
Sandra Smith — Northwest Observer
NW GUILFORD COUNTY – The Summerfield Town Council does it. Stokesdale generally doesn’t. Oak Ridge lies somewhere in between.
We’re talking about prayer at public meetings.
It’s a touchy subject, as evidenced in other nearby cities and municipalities. In May, Greensboro Mayor Bill Knight created a stir when he added prayer to the agenda of council meetings. Previously, the council had observed a moment of silence before getting the meeting underway.
After a suit was brought against the Forsyth County commissioners for beginning their meetings with prayer, a judge ruled in 2009 that the prayer was unconstitutional. The commissioners have appealed the ruling.
In High Point, the city council adopted a resolution saying they would only allow non-sectarian prayer, or those that do not address a particular deity or religion.
“Our town has had an invocation at the beginning of our town meetings since the town was incorporated (in 1996),” says Summerfield Mayor Mark Brown, who says he believes prayer at public meetings is legal. “I have been watching court cases carefully that relate to prayer. Should there be a court case that bans prayer at public meetings, then I’m sure the council will discuss its implications.”
Councilwoman Alicia Flowers agrees with the town’s stand. “The first amendment of the constitution states, ‘Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.’ I support what the constitution states in regard to this matter. Men and women of all beliefs have made the ultimate sacrifice so that we as American citizens may enjoy this important right,” Flowers says.
But Flowers cites a recent Summerfield meeting, when resident Gail Dunham gave her thoughts about the prayer. “A speaker from the floor at a recent council meeting commented, ‘The prayer at the beginning of the meeting doesn’t seem to carry that far in the actions that I see.’ I personally believe that if we don’t have love in our hearts, saying a prayer is meaningless. I would also add that I welcome all the heartfelt prayers I can get.”
For years, the Oak Ridge Town Council opened its meetings with prayer, often inviting local clergy members to offer the invocation. “Currently we open our meetings with prayer which varies from meeting to meeting between sectarian (Christian) and non-sectarian,” says Mayor Ray Combs.
“We invite requests from anyone regardless of religious affiliation who wishes to open our meetings with an appropriate civic-minded faith-based prayer or non-sectarian observation.”
Although the Stokesdale Town Council meeting doesn’t generally begin with prayer, Mayor Pro Tem Mickie Halbrook says it’s not because it has been discouraged. “I really believe in it, and I think it’s good,” Halbrook says. “I’m not for doing away with prayer in public places. I don’t care what nationality you are or what your beliefs are, you could listen to a prayer.”
Halbrook says she also believes prayer should not have been abolished in public schools. “I think it was good for the children,” she says. “It worked then, and I think it would work now.”
Currently, a national religious speech organization called the Pray in Jesus Name Project, is applying pressure to North Carolina legislators to restore the right to pray at public meetings. Former Navy Chaplain Gordon James Klingenschmitt, leader of the Pray in Jesus Name Project who was punished for praying “in Jesus name” in uniform in 2006, has coordinated the sending of more than 140,000 faxes to the North Carolina State House, demanding the reversal of Speaker Joe Hackney’s ban of the word “Jesus.”