(TNS) — A recent ruling by the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals has local officials consulting with attorneys about the future of prayer at public meetings, but the topic has many divided.
The ruling stemmed from a case filed by the American Civil Liberties Union which noted commissioners in Rowan County pressured participation with phrases such as "please pray with me" and seemingly proselytized by saying "I pray that the citizens of Rowan County will love you, Lord."
In addition to questioning the coercive aspect of the prayer, the crux of the case was the fact that the prayer is led by commissioners. Judges ruled that the combination of the two with the consistent invocation of one faith sends a message of exclusion.
The commissioners can appeal the decision to the Supreme Court.
The Wilson City Council and Wilson County Board of Commissioners have included prayer led by officials for many years with the respective counsel for both bodies reviewing the case and its ramifications.
As for smaller communities in the Wilson area, towns are equally split. Stantonsburg, Sharpsburg, Kenly, Sims and Middlesex have a commissioner-led prayer to start each meeting. On the other hand, Saratoga, Lucama, Elm City, Black Creek and Bailey do not pray, although some do include the pledge of allegiance at the start of the meeting.
"There are too many gray areas, even with the recent ruling, about what you can and can't say, who you can and can't infer, what you can and can't invoke," said Bailey Town Administrator Timothy Johnson.
For communities that retain the invocation on meeting agendas, the prayer leader is decided on a rotating basis among elected officials. There are no written guidelines about the prayer itself -- a commonality among all the praying boards.
"Just as the U.S. House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate open their meetings in prayer and have done so since the founding of our country, it is incumbent upon elected officials to seek wisdom and guidance from God in all the deliberations that are made," said H. Powell Dew Jr., who is a commissioner in Stantonsburg and has been a pastor for 16 years. "The invocation of a prayer at the beginning of a meeting does not necessarily mean that every person in attendance must be in agreement or believe as the person who is presenting the prayer does."
Elected faith leaders?
In addition to Dew, the Wilson City Council has an official who is also a reverend with Michael Bell, who has been a pastor for 40 years and a councilman since 2015. The Jamaican native has been a Wilson resident since 2004 and serves as the presiding elder of the Wilson District of the AME Zion Church.
Since the ruling deems lawmaker-led prayer as unconstitutional, the premise of inviting clergy to lead prayer at meetings is recommended. Legal counsel have not determined how that recommendation affects faith leaders who also serve as elected officials.
Jesus, Buddha and Allah
"I believe if a community is Muslim, they should pray to Allah. Christians should pray to Jesus and in Salt Lake City, they'd invoke the blessings of their God," said Dew. "I believe the local board is a reflection of the community."
Bell said he supports starting prayers with phrases similar to "In the name of the universal God," but not forcing clergy from different faiths to change vocabulary.
"If someone prays in the name of Allah, I don't have a problem as long as they bless our community, bless our nation, bless our citizens and elected officials," Bell said. "If they believe in Bahá'u'lláh, Buddha or such, that is fine. I'll just say 'Lord Jesus' to myself when they finish."
"We're living in a diverse society and diversification brings forth a clear identity of our spirituality," said Bell. "One might prefer Jesus, others Muhammad and others Buddha. I just prefer Jesus."
Bell said that when religions and beliefs offend people, an injustice has been done.
"When you look at all the major world religions, they all believe in God," he said. "Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam, Christianity and the New Age Movement all believe in God. I think problem is with how we angle the whole element of God in terms of theology.
"Some people call God different names, but God will never be diminished because humans call him a different name. He is still God."