Mebane’s city council decided Monday night to resurrect and revise the tradition of having an opening prayer at its monthly meetings.
At December’s meeting, mayor Ed Hooks announced at the outset that he was eliminating the traditional time for an opening prayer, offered by a member of the council, in favor of a moment of silence.
In the interim, city attorney Lawson Brown provided the council with guidance on the parameters of a constitutionally-acceptable approach that the council might pursue if it wished to restore a prayer to “solemnize” its proceedings.
See city attorney Lawson Brown’s guidelines to council if members want to re-establish prayer: https://alamancenews.com/principles-for-new-policy-on-prayer-as-recommended-by-mebane-city-attorney-lawson-brown/
For the full text of Brown’s memo to the council, click HERE
For full text of Coates Canons examination of legal issues surrounding prayer within North Carolina, based on Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals case from Rowan County, and provided by Brown to the city council, click HERE
Brown had said at last month’s meeting that the council’s tradition of having prayers offered by members of the public body ran afoul of a 2017 court case in Rowan County, decided by the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals, which overturned a similar practice of prayers being offered by county commissioners there.
It was based on that legal advice, that Hooks said he felt compelled to revise the policy, especially in light of threatened legal action from the Freedom From Religion Foundation, a Wisconsin organization that opposes public prayers.
Last month, no council members other than the mayor, addressed the issue, but this month, they did.
HOW BEST TO START MEBANE COUNCIL MEETINGS: MOMENT OF SILENCE OR PRAYER?
PATTY PHILIPPS: MOMENT OF SILENCE https://alamancenews.com/how-best-to-start-mebane-council-meetings-moment-of-silence-or-prayer-patty-philipps-with-moment-of-silence/
DAVID WHITE: PUBLIC PRAYER IS APPROPRIATE https://alamancenews.com/how-best-to-start-mebane-council-meetings-moment-of-silence-or-prayer-david-white-public-prayer-is-appropriate/
Council member Patty Philipps said she preferred the new policy of offering a moment of silence in lieu of prayer. “We can comply with the Constitution and acknowledge the free exercise of religion in our meeting by providing a moment of silence during which citizens, staff and council alike may use the time in accordance with their own faith tradition or beliefs. This is not,” she said emphasizing the negative, “a removal of prayer from the meeting. It is an acknowledgement that in our country we should be permitted to pray, meditate or otherwise seek guidance in accordance with our own beliefs.”
Other council members generally said they preferred to find a legally acceptable and Constitutionally defensible method for continuing to have prayer offered at the outset of their meetings.
Councilman Tim Bradley and newly-seated councilman Jonathan White expressed interest in the idea of asking staff to come up with a new policy that would restore the practice of having an opening prayer. New council member Montrena Hadley joined that view.
Councilman Sean Ewing also expressed interest in finding a “more inclusive” approach. “I look forward to moving forward with being inclusive with religions, inviting clergy, possibly on a first-come, first serve basis – not only clergy from within Mebane’s city limits or around city limits, but around the area. I believe we can represent everyone,” Ewing said.
Councilman White outlined his criteria for measuring the issue: “Is the practice legal? Is it kind or respectful? Is it the best we can come up with?”
Both options – moment of silence and prayer – meet the first two criteria. But White said, he felt it would be “best” to come up with a policy that allows prayer.
“It does reinforce a practice that has been in our country for hundreds of years.”
During the conversation on the procedure for prayer, Hooks realized that he had not begun the meeting with the moment of silence he had stated would become the council’s practice. He interrupted the discussion to pause for that before continuing the discussion about whether to replace the moment of silence with prayer.
After council members offered their opinions, the council then heard from five Mebane residents who had signed up to comment during a “public comment” period.
David White emphasized the U.S. Supreme Court’s support for allowing prayer, including sectarian prayer, before council meetings.
“As you draw up guidelines for prayer in this chamber,” White said, “do not think that you are legally obligated to require clergy members to pray non-sectarian prayers as if the only God welcome in this room is a vague, non-specific, generic God.”
White quoted from justice Anthony Kennedy’s Supreme Court decision in the most recent national precedent which said that as long as prayers of clergy members do not “denigrate nonbelievers or religious minorities, threaten damnation, or preach conversion,” those prayers are “both permissible and also perfectly in keeping with the long tradition of sectarian legislative prayer in our nation.”
Mebane resident Ed Priola, who acknowledged that he is a candidate for the state house of representatives, also singled out the fact that Hooks’ substitution of the opening prayer with a moment of silence at the council’s December meeting had “happened so abruptly” and “without the input from citizens.”
Priola also suggested that the council had listened to “weak legal advice and risk assessment” based on a” letter from a group in Wisconsin that is entirely anti-religious.”
Priola also said that the timing of the decision, during the Christmas break,” when people were starting to look forward to their Christmas activities, was inappropriate.
Priola challenged the fact that there had been “no opportunity for comment, no debate, and no discussion about the constitutionally-approved alternatives” that might be instituted.
Stuart Smith said he had watched videos of about 30 local governments, school boards and other organizations. Most, he said, had opening prayers.
Ken James quoted from Isaiah 33:22:” For the Lord is our judge, the Lord is our lawgiver, the Lord is our king. He will save us.”
James said the Founding Fathers had used that verse as a pattern for developing three branches of government: judicial, legislative, and the executive branch.
To begin official meetings with prayer, James said, “shows an appreciation and a regard for the solemnity of the responsibilities that have been entrusted to you.”
“When a person approaches a task in prayer,” James added, “it encourages a spirit and a demeanor of humility.”
Steve Holt, a new Mebanite, said he supported having prayer at public meetings. “I don’t believe it was best to declare this change to be so without first having public discussion and a city council vote.”
After hearing from the public, Bradley motioned to have the staff prepare a policy to be considered at the council’s next meeting (February 14), that would have clergy deliver the opening prayer.
In response to earlier concerns expressed by Philipps about whether council members would be selecting the individual clergy members delivering the monthly prayer, Bradley suggested that a random selection procedure be developed as a part of the new policy.
The motion was adopted unanimously.
For his part, Hooks did not consider the council’s action a repudiation of his December action. In fact, Hooks said in an interview with The Alamance News, “I had pushed this approach [of having clergy members pray] for some time.”
Read coverage of last month’s meeting when prayer was unilaterally scrapped in favor of a moment of silence: https://alamancenews.com/mebane-mayor-scraps-councils-opening-prayer-in-face-of-threat-from-wisconsin-atheist-group-will-substitute-moment-of-silence/