SALISBURY, NC (WBTV) - "Dear Heavenly Father, be with us tonight as we do the business of the county, give us the intelligence, the wisdom, and the courage to do what's best for all citizens of Rowan County. I ask this in the name of my personal Lord and savior Jesus Christ, amen."
It may have been the most anticipated prayer of the year, and with those words Rowan County Commissioner Craig Pierce opened the commission's March 18 meeting, effectively sending the message to the community and to the American Civil Liberties Union, that Rowan County would fight to pray in the name of Jesus.
The ACLU filed suit last week on behalf of three Rowan County residents who say they felt excluded and uncomfortable at county board meetings by the opening prayer, that nearly always is prayed as a Christian prayer. While three plaintiffs are named in the suit, the ACLU of North Carolina told WBTV they had received "dozens of complaints" from Rowan County citizens about the sectarian prayers.
The board met for an hour and half in emergency closed session prior to the regularly scheduled meeting. They met with the county attorney, and also with attorney Bryce Neier of the Alliance Defending Freedom organization. Neier and the ADF recently were unsuccessful in defending sectarian prayer in Forsyth County. In that case Forsyth County lost a Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals decision regarding sectarian prayer at public meetings after a five-year battle. That legal battle cost Forsyth County taxpayers an estimated $280,000. The decision led nearly two dozen North Carolina communities to stop using sectarian prayers in government meetings.
"I will tell you now that I do not agree with the Fourth Circuit opinion," Neier said. "There are other federal jurisdictions where these type of issues have been litigated and there is what we call a split in the federal circuits. Some of the federal courts have ruled against organizations such as the ACLU. This is not a hopeless case, this is a tough case to litigate."
Rowan County, on the other hand, has vowed to fight, voting unanimously to go forward on the issue.
"We think that it's not just a matter of principle for this county," Sides told WBTV following the meeting. "It's a matter of principle for the state of North Carolina, every county in North Carolina and the United States."
Monday night's meeting featured 26 speakers, the majority of whom praised commissioners for their stance on the issue.
"In 1920 the ACLU was started by communists who protested against the war we were fighting and promoted the communist agenda as a front organization." said local resident Larry Wright. "They basically push a left wing socialist agenda and defend leftists and liberals in court cases. They are representing these three complainers who say they are offended by prayer. Why are the complainers offended? No one is forcing them to give money, no one is forcing them to believe in a certain way, no one is forcing them to attend a church and support it. Are they being forced to switch religions? No."
Rev. Bill Godair, pastor of the Cornerstone Church, presented a large symbolic check for $10,000 for the county to use in fighting the lawsuit, and Godair challenged other pastors and churches across the county to do the same.
Some speakers did speak against the sectarian prayer and encouraged commissioners to not fight the ACLU lawsuit.
"If you gentleman stop out in the hall or out in the street, you're a private citizen. Some of you have stood here as private citizens and spoken to the commission. That is your right and I will defend it as I have," resident John Burke said. "However, as you come through those doors then you become public officials, responsible for 135,000 odd people in Rowan County, and you speak as county commissioners, not private citizens. When you offer a prayer as public officials, you offer it to all 135,000 people, not just to the ones that are of your particular tradition in the protestant tradition. To do otherwise is to show disrespect or lack of respect for others in the county."
At one point a speaker began singing a hymn and was followed by several of the approximately 120 residents who were attending the meeting, both in the J. Newton Cohen room and in a "spillover" room that was showing the meeting live on a television monitor. Commissioner Sides asked audience members to refrain from applause.
After public comment the meeting was stopped for a brief break. When it resumed commissioners voted to fight the lawsuit, and Sides warned that while many organizations have pledged money for the cause, there will likely be a cost to Rowan County taxpayers as the case moves forward.
"There are expenses and court filings that would have to be paid," Sides said. "Our vote tonight says we would be willing to spend county dollars."
"This is about the government composing prayers," said Chris Brook, Legal Director for the ACLU of North Carolina. "This is something that could be resolved tomorrow, if the Rowan County commissioners review the cases that we cite, review what the First Amendment says, we could resolve this tomorrow and go forward with Rowan County conducting governmental meetings in a way hat make all of the residents in the community feel welcome. If not, it is something that could take a little bit of time to rectify."
The ACLU has sought a preliminary injunction to stop the sectarian prayers, but as of Tuesday morning, the injunction has not been ordered.