Tag Archives: forsyth county prayer case

The Prayer Bill Comes Due

Hopefully this will be the last time I write about the Forsyth County prayer case. I've written (many times) before about my disagreement with the Forsyth County commissioners who voted to fight the ACLU-backed lawsuit regarding sectarian prayers before commission meetings, so I won't rehash it all here. I will, however, cover one aspect of this affair that's always bugged me and that's the idea of who's footing the legal bills. (I've been prompted to write this because I just read that the plaintiff's attorneys bills came in at $248,000 which was negotiated down from $273,710.15 and the commissioners now have to decide whether or not to accept it or spend more money contesting it).

Here's the deal: the county commissioners were able to take the fight, against the advice of their own lawyer mind you, because one group volunteered to take the case at no expense to the county. Unfortunately that group would not agree to pay the plaintiff's legal costs if the county lost, so one or two commissioners were getting cold feet at the thought of paying the bill with taxpayer dollars if they lost. That's when a local group of church leaders formed a different group to raise money for a defense fund and said they'd cover plaintiff's costs up to $300,000 if the county commissioners lost. So all's good right?

Not in my mind. Here's why:

  • While I believe there are times you will disagree with your own attorney, if you decide to go against your attorney's advice then you should be willing to fight with your own money. You know, put your money where your mouth is.
  • By allowing an outside entity to fight your case you're essentially endorsing that outside entity. In this case they went with a conservative Christian group, but what if they'd been approached by a conservative Muslim group that agreed to fight for the exact same ruling and even agreed to cover the plaintiff's costs no matter what the outcome? Do you think the commissioners would have voted for it?  I don't think there's a snowball's chance in hell they would have because they'd have been perceived as supporting a fundamentalist Muslim group, and that's not happening.  
  • I also had some misgivings that the local group would actually come through with the money, but apparently they provided documentation proving that they had the funds set aside. Assuming that they do come through with the money I have to say I wish they'd spent it elsewhere, like maybe feeding the hungry. You see I've learned through volunteering with Second Harvest Food Bank that they can provide seven meals for $1, which means that if the money had been spent with them instead of on a court case that the county's own attorney said was a loser, they could have provided1,736,000 meals to some folks who really needed it. (I do realize that this could be said about a lot of other areas of spending, but it helps put things in perspective).

By the way if you really think the commissioners need prayers to guide their work you're more than welcome to go and pray for them during the public comments part of their meeting. In fact if they really thought they needed prayers to guide them before doing their business they could have added a public comment period at the beginning of the meeting, opened it up to everyone, enjoyed the citizens' input (prayers included) and gotten on with their business and no one would have said "boo." But unfortunately they seemed to feel that the only people able to adequately pray for them were their hand-picked clergy members, which of course is what got them in trouble. I'm amazed people haven't taken offense to that.

Oops, I guess I lied when I said I'd only write about the bill.

A Prayer Tip from Onslow County

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.