I came across a story on the website of the Jacksonville (NC) Daily News website about the Onslow County Manager declining to pray at the county commissioners meeting because of the recent Forsyth County prayer ruling by the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals. That ruling held that only non-sectarian prayers can be given to open a government meeting and County Manager Jeff Hudson, who was asked by commissioners to open the meeting with an invocation, was reported by the newspaper as saying "At our last meeting Aug. 1st we did not know of this decision and its implications … I will give no invocation to a generic god … I pray only in the name of my Lord and Savior Jesus the Christ. To do otherwise is a tacit denial of my Lord’s name. And since to offer such a prayer from this time forth is in violation of the law, I must refuse to give an invocation."
Later in the story they interviewed some attendees at the meeting:
During the public comment period, which gives citizens three minutes to speak to items on the agenda, several attendees voiced their objection to the ruling.
Jack Morton, who resides in the Southwest area, said, “There is no prayer worth praying unless it is in the name of Jesus Christ.”
Dr. Eric Jones, a minister at The Bible Church Ministries in Richlands, used his time for public comment to provide a prayer.
After the meeting he said during his 22 years as a minister in the county he has done invocations for commissioner meetings many times.
Jones told The Daily News he was not invited to the meeting by Jarman or anyone else on the board or by any county staff member.
“They can’t stop us from praying in the public part of the meeting … It was my own decision … to pray for our elected officials,” he said. “I was not invited to come it was something I felt the desire to do. (Prayer should be part) of any government assembly, it always has been and there is no need to change it now.”
The story later quotes the legal director of the ACLU of North Carolina's Legal Foundation as saying that they had no problem with people using the public comments period to pray.
Frankly my biggest frustration during the years that the Forsyth County prayer case has been going on is that people continue to claim that peoples' right to pray is being threatened/denied when in fact they are free to pray to whomever they please during the meetings. The problem is the government endorsing a certain sect, and quite frankly the Onslow County Manager's quote that " I will give no invocation to a generic god … I pray only in the name of my Lord and Savior Jesus the Christ. To do otherwise is a tacit denial of my Lord’s name" helps make the point. Not only is he a representative of the government, he's a paid representative being asked by electedrepresentatives to give an invocation, and he is publicly stating that praying to any god other than Jesus is wrong. In my mind it's not hard to see how someone could perceive that as government endorsement of a particular sect.
Since the Fourth Circuit's ruling I've had some interesting conversations about this case with some local folks. At least one, who's an attorney, sees the legal interpretation as flawed and I'll have to defer to his opinion on that, but I still don't understand how people can see this as an infringement on individuals' right to pray and why more people don't just take advantage of the public comments period and offer their own prayers. No one's going to try and stop them and if someone does I'm willing to bet the ACLU will be there to fight for the person trying to pray.