Forsyth County commissioners may resurrect prayer policy

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FORSYTH COUNTY, N.C. — The Forsyth County Board of Commissioners could get the ball rolling Monday night on returning to its old policy of inviting clergy to pray at the start of meetings.

At an agenda briefing on Thursday, Commissioner Gloria Whisenhunt asked County Attorney Davida Martin when the county could resume its old prayer policy in light of the U.S. Supreme Court’s recent 5-4 ruling in favor of prayer at government meetings.

“I could probably put something together even for Monday night to authorize our office to pursue lifting the current (court) order from the county so that we could proceed with enacting and following our own policy,” Martin said.

Despite his initial hesitation to move forward so quickly, Chairman Richard Linville agreed to put it on Monday’s agenda based on the desires of the majority of the board.

Martin said after the meeting that she is not yet sure what all she will include in the agenda item on Monday night. Whether the commissioners will be voting on a specific prayer policy is not yet clear.

Commissioner Walter Marshall was the only commissioner to express concerns about the prayer policy, saying the county needs to be inclusive and make sure the list is not just a thing for the “right-wing Christian church.” Marshall also said he wanted local religious leaders to craft a policy instead of politicians.

The commissioners used to invite clergy from various faith traditions to give the opening invocation at meetings, but in 2007, residents filed a federal lawsuit to stop sectarian prayers.

Forsyth County has been prohibited from allowing sectarian prayer in meetings since a federal judge issued an injunction in 2010 and the county lost its appeal. Since then, the commissioners have been taking turns leading prayers with non-specific references to God or holding moments of silence. They were not in favor of telling ministers to censor out specific religious references from their prayers.

In a similar case, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled on Monday that the town of Greece, N.Y., did not violate the Constitution by allowing ministers to deliver Christian prayers at meetings. The court determined that the town did not discriminate against other faiths. Most of the prayers were delivered by Christians because most of the congregations in town were Christian. The Supreme Court ruling rejected the argument that ministers’ prayers should be censored but also warned against prayers that proselytize or denigrate others.

Martin said the high court’s ruling applies to Forsyth County as it would any other county, but she wants to make sure there are no issues with the injunction that was issued against Forsyth years ago.

“We would really like the opportunity, with the board’s permission, to file a quick motion … to try to lift this thing so that there are no questions or doubts,” Martin said.

The county could practice its old policy, perhaps with some minor tweaks.

Commissioner Bill Whiteheart said he thought the county’s former policy had been inclusive and suggested the item should be put on an agenda for a formal vote.

Marshall said he thinks religious leaders of the community need to decide on a policy.

“It should be a faith-based effort and not a political one,” Marshall said.

“I think if you look at the Supreme Court ruling the only thing that we need to be worried about is the policy of how we invite people to come, make sure it’s inclusive. Once they get here, the Supreme Court has clearly said they can pretty much pray however they want to,” Commissioner Mark Baker said.

But Marshall said he did not have faith in the Supreme Court and that he thinks very little of the current panel of justices.

“All it’s going to do is create more dissension,” Marshall said of the ruling.

He wanted the board to take it slow and continued pushing for the board to let clergy create the policy.

“I’ll give it thought, but I’m not sure that there’s a need to do that,” Linville said.

The board meets at 6 p.m. Monday in the Forsyth County Government Center.