OF CHURCH AND STATE: Prayer issue returns to Forsyth County

by Brittany Mollis

Prayer issue returns to Forsyth County

It started with a moment of silence.

The Forsyth County Commissioners gathered Monday evening to discuss a number of agenda items, and the room was filled with more people than usual because of a particular agenda item: prayer.

Last week, the Supreme Court made a ruling in favor of Greece, New York that upheld the city’s right to begin monthly public meetings with prayer led by clergy. The city was brought to court by two residents – one atheist and one Jewish – who said that because the prayers were mostly said by clergy of the Christian faith, the government was endorsing one religion over others.

The town of Greece had the support of 23 states as well as support from the Obama administration.

In a 5-4 vote, the Supreme Court ruled that Greece was well within their right to continue their practice of public prayer led by clergy. Justice Kennedy spoke on behalf of the decision, saying that it was constitutional given the long-held American tradition and because the town’s practice was “nonsectarian and not designed to exclude any residents.”

At last Thursday’s briefing, Commissioner Gloria Whisenhunt asked Forsyth County Attorney Davida Martin if it would be possible for the County to uplift their current ban and reinstate its old prayer policy that, like Greece, involved clergy members.

The Board of Commissioners used to invite various clergy from different religions to begin the meetings with prayer, but in 2007 county residents filed a suit to ban sectarian prayer. The Board fought back with an appeal brought to the 4 th Circuit in 2010, but they were defeated.

“We were involved in a court decision with the 4 th Circuit before,” said Commissioner Whiteheart. “The faith community in the area raised over $300,000 to pay for our legal defense.”

Commissioner Whiteheart along with Commissioner Baker requested that their names be put next to the agenda item under commissioners who “seconded” the right to further discuss the topic at the May 22 briefing.

Two Forsyth County pastors spoke during the public hearing of the prayer discussion. They each had three minutes to state their opinions, and both men were in favor of the county moving forward with the appeal.

Kernersville resident, Pastor Robert Hutchens of Meadowview Baptist Church, applauded the commissioners for trying to take a stand in 2010. “This Board courageously stood before,” Hutchens said. “We should not be praying a politically correct prayer.”

Rev. Jeff Baity of Berean Baptist Church, a county resident, also spoke at the public hearing.

“As elected officials, it is humble of them to recognize that they do not have all the answers,” Baity said. “I hope you pray privately, and I hope you pray publicly.”

Attorney Martin said that if the commissioners vote to appeal their case to the 4 th Circuit in order to lift the ban, the process could move “very quickly.”

“The policy in Forsyth County is nearly identical to the one in Greece, New York,” Martin said.

According to Martin, in order for the 4 th Circuit to lift the current policy, some tweaks would need to be made.

The current prayer policy held in Forsyth County allows public prayer at the beginning of meetings, but there is no longer clergy involved. Commissioners take turns leading the prayer, and they do not address any particular “god,” rather they refer to a “higher power.”

Commissioner Walter Marshall had reservations about proceeding with an appeal.

“We can’t advocate a policy that establishes a dominant religion,” Marshall said. “The policy should be inclusive of all faiths and not put down any faiths.”

There was no vote on the issue at Monday’s meeting. It will be discussed once again on May 22 at 2 p.m. during the briefing session. The briefing is open to the public. Commissioner Linville said that the Board and attorneys will further review the policy then. !