Prayer before government meetings in jeopardy

By Chrysta Carroll -

ELIZABETHTOWN — County commissioners’ boards across the state are poised to hear whether they will be allowed to continue to pray before their monthly meetings, and the decision by a federal court could also affect other government boards.

The 4th Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond, Va., heard a case Wednesday from Rowan County that would determine whether prayer by elected officials at county commissioners’ meetings upholds the separation of church and state or if it violates the constitutional rights of attendees.

Bladen County Manager Greg Martin says the Bladen County Board of Commissioners has been praying before meetings for decades. In the county manager position for a little more than 14 years, Martin doesn’t remember a time when the meetings didn’t begin by invoking the blessing of God on the gathering.

The meetings are opened in prayer by the Rev. Larry Hayes of Bladenboro, but it has not always been the case that the prayers were led by a community member.

“We had a period of time when a variety of commissioners delivered prayer, and then it was the practice for a long time that various ministers would offer prayer,” reported Martin. “Now recently, (Rev. Hayes) has attended meetings and offers prayer every time.”

He added that Hayes is volunteering to do the job, and that it has become a regular practice.

The distinction between who is offering the prayers is an important one. The U.S. Supreme Court in 2014 upheld the right of a Greece, N.Y., town council to open with prayer, as long as the invocation was not being led by elected officials but by people who volunteered to do it. Any community member of any faith could open the meetings.

The Bladen County Board of Commissioners has a history of supporting prayer before meetings.

“Several years ago, the issue came up in Forsyth County. The commissioners here were very clear that they supported Forsyth County’s position to continue the practice of prayer at the beginning of the meetings,” explained Martin.

The Elizabethtown Town Council meetings also begin with prayer, and Ricky Leinwand, Elizabethtown town councilman, weighed in with his personal feelings on the issue.

“I have absolutely no problems with it,” he said. “As a Jewish person who is very religious, I have no problem. I’ve been here all my life, and this is a religious community, which we’re very proud of. I’ve never been insulted or offended by a Christian ending to prayer. I’m used to it and it’s fine by me. The ministers around here are my friends, and if they want to end their prayers (by invoking the name of Jesus), that’s fine with me.”

He added, “Prayer before meetings gets us in the right frame of mind. Rufus Lloyd’s prayer is really good. It gets everybody in a good spirit and good mindset so that we try to do the right thing and not have any animocity. It makes it easy to go through our agenda and do the right thing.”

Chrysta Carroll can be reached by calling 862-4163.

By Chrysta Carroll

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