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Mebane mayor scraps council’s opening prayer in face of threat from Wisconsin atheist group; will substitute ‘moment of silence’

Mebane mayor Ed Hooks has decided to end the city council’s tradition of beginning each monthly meeting with an invocation, or prayer. Hooks said he will substitute a moment of silence in place of the customary prayer.

At the outset of the meeting, Hooks read a two-sentence statement: “Because of Mebane’s conviction that the diversity of our strongly-held beliefs makes [us] greater, not weaker. And because of our commitment to show respect to all faiths, beliefs, and perspectives, the Mebane city council will no longer open with an invocation.” Instead, Hooks said, there would be a moment of silence.

Hooks did not initially explain any further, but in response to a question from Alamance News publisher Tom Boney, Jr., present to cover the meeting, Hooks said he would elaborate later in the meeting.

When he did so, Hooks said he had acted in the face of an implied threat of litigation by a Wisconsin-based organization, the Freedom From Religion Foundation. According to that group’s website and background, it represents atheists, agnostics, and other “non-theists.” In Mebane’s case, the group said it was acting on behalf of an unnamed “concerned Mebane resident.”

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To read the Freedom From Religion Foundation’s full letter to mayor Hooks, go HERE

Historically, the mayor pre-arranges with one of the members of the council to say the opening prayer. As a practical matter, however, Hooks explained in a subsequent interview with the newspaper, those prayers have usually been offered by himself and councilman Tim Bradley.

The other four council members – Jill Auditori, Sean Ewing, Everette Greene, and Patty Philipps – have usually demurred from offering the invocation, Hooks said.

“Over the past few years,” Hooks later elaborated, “[in] conversations with Jill and Sean, it was made clear they were not interested in the prayer.”

Auditori and Greene attended their last meeting Monday night; neither sought re-election; sworn in were new council members Montrena Hadley and Jonathan White.

In most other local boards that also open their meetings with prayer, the duty is more universally shared. Both the Burlington city council and county commissioners, for instance, have had all five members of each board offer the opening prayer on a rotating basis.

City attorney Lawson Brown said that because Hooks’ and Bradley’s prayers represent a “Christian” perspective, he concurred with the Wisconsin organization’s assessment that Mebane was violating the law, at least as interpreted after a 2017 opinion from the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals (which covers North Carolina) by failing to provide “diversity” in the denominational or religious affiliation of the pray-ers.

In an interview Wednesday, Brown also acknowledged that the lack of wider participation by the other council members did add to the perception problem, in Brown’s assessment.

In fact, the group’s November 5, 2021 letter to the city council members cited objections to both of the members’ recent prayers.

Hooks prayed at the council’s October 4, 2021 meeting: “Father we just thank You for this day and thank You for Your many blessings. We just ask Your guidance and that everything we say and do is pleasing to You. For we ask in Your name, amen.” [Capitalization of “You” and “Your” is in the group’s letter.]

Likewise, the group objected to Bradley’s November 1 prayer: “Let’s pray. Heavenly Father, we are grateful, Lord, for the opportunity to gather together and discuss the city’s business. We ask guidance and direction as we do so. We are grateful for safe travels here and we pray for safe travels home. . .Amen.”

Because the prayers are “invariably Christian,” the group noted several times in its objection, the Foundation said the council was violating a 2017 court decision (Lund vs. Rowan County) by the Fourth Circuit that “prohibited government-led prayer of the sort practiced at [Mebane’s] meetings.”

Several times during the council meeting, in responding to the newspaper’s inquiries about the process of reviewing and changing the prayer, Hooks said that, based on his discussion with Brown (and city manager Chris Rollins), he had concluded that Mebane’s prayer procedure was, in fact, “illegal.”

Brown stated during the council meeting that having “no diversity of opinion or other faiths” among those offering the monthly prayer led him to conclude that the council’s approach did not conform to the Fourth Circuit decision.

In a subsequent interview, Brown acknowledged that he was being “super cautious on this topic,” later using similar terminology of being “very, very cautious.” He added, “You don’t want to subject yourself to a lawsuit,” particularly on a question that has been raised before.

Asked why his legal opinion to eliminate the prayer differed so from other municipal and county attorneys whose boards and councils follow the same procedure that Mebane had used but was now declaring illegal – of rotating the prayer among members – Brown said, “None of those boards have asked for my legal advice,” suggesting that he would advise them in the same manner as he had Hooks.

Read the newspaper’s editorial opinion on the mayor’s decision:

See other meeting coverage of swearing in of new council members:

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