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County expected to reinstitute prayer at meetings

Larry Rogers, of the PEP business organization, County Commissioners Larry Young and Charlie Messer, and board clerk Terry Wilson pray outside before a meeting in May 2012. Larry Rogers, of the PEP business organization, County Commissioners Larry Young and Charlie Messer, and board clerk Terry Wilson pray outside before a meeting in May 2012.

On the heels of a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that upheld a New York town board's right to pray before meetings, the Henderson County Board of Commissioners is expected to resume invocations by Christian and non-Christian religious leaders.


The Board of Commissioners on Monday will take up a resolution reinstituting the prayers that it suspended three years ago after a U.S. Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals ruling that seemed to make Christian invocations legally uncertain.
Last week in a 5-4 ruling the Supreme Court gave its approval to invocations as practiced by the town board in Greece, N.Y., describing the meeting opening prayers as ceremonial and similar to those used by Congress and state legislatures.
"The town of Greece does not violate the First Amendment by opening its meetings with prayer that comports with our tradition," Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote, "and does not coerce participation by nonadherents."
A resolution on the county commissioners' agenda on Monday quotes the Supreme Court's observation that "since this nation was founded and until the present day, many Americans deem that their own existence must be understood by precepts far beyond the authority of the government."
Hewing carefully to boundaries drawn by the Supreme Court ruling, the resolution drafted by County Attorney Russ Burrell says that the purpose of prayer before meetings "has not been, and is not and should not be to proselytize or advance any one faith or belief, but rather to focus the participants of the meetings of the Board of Commissioners on their greater purposes, and to invoke guidance from a source other than the immediate concerns at hand."
If the resolution is adopted, the board would reinstitute an invocation followed by the Pledge of Allegiance to the United States, "inviting only those in attendance who wish to do so to participate." The invocation will be led by "leaders of religious congregations," invited by board members and intended to "celebrate the rich and diverse religious heritage of Henderson County." The invocations "must not be intended to advance any one faith or belief, or to disparage any other faith or belief," the resolution says.
The resolution also sets out the county's plans for inviting prayer leaders. The county will send letters to all congregations, inviting them to contact the board's clerk if they're interesting in delivering the invocation. They will be chosen on "first to respond, first to be scheduled basis," the resolution says.
Three years ago, the Board of Commissioners moved its pre-meeting prayers outside to the Courthouse Square.
"It took us out of the line of fire," County Manager Steve Wyatt said. "We might pray outside one more time but with the Supreme Court ruling, which was a pleasant surprise, I anticipate the board will have some discussion to bring it back inside."
Wyatt said Burrell and Commissioner Michael Edney had spoken briefly about the subject. Burrell will present the proposed resolution to the board.