Forsyth commissioners prepare to bring back sectarian prayer

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Sectarian prayer is on its way back to the public meeting room of the Forsyth County Commission.

Meeting for a briefing this afternoon, the county commission considered four options before choosing an option that would allow clergy and others to come before the elected board and pray at the beginning of meetings. The commission tasked County Attorney Davida Martin with drafting an “open invitation” policy that would allow persons to contact the county to express their interest in taking a turn giving the invocation.

Martin said after the brief that the policy would be inclusive of not only Christians, but also Jews, Muslims and other religious groups.

“It’s basically the same policy we had originally,” Martin said.

An order by US District Court Judge James A. Beaty in November lifting an injunction against sectarian prayer based on the US Supreme Court’s decision in Town of Greece v. Galloway, clearing the way for the county commission to restore sectarian prayer during its meetings.

The commissioners took a straw vote that resulted in an even split between restoring sectarian prayer based on a policy written by Americans for the Alliance Defending Freedom — the organization that defended the county against a lawsuit challenging sectarian prayer — and a policy to have a moment of silence at the beginning of the meeting. Republican Don Martin, the holdout, voted alone for an option to make an open invitation to groups to come pray before the meetings. Republican Chairman Dave Plyler, Democrat Ted Kaplan and Democrat Walter Marshall favored a moment of silence, while Republican Richard Linville, Republican Gloria Whisenhunt and Democrat Everette Witherspoon favored the traditional sectarian prayer.

Recognizing that there weren’t enough votes to support a moment of silence, Kaplan began lobbying his fellow commissioners to adopt the state Senate’s invocation policy, which cautions clergy to be mindful of the fact that elected officials represent a diversity of religious viewpoints and to refrain from using prayer as a platform to advocate for any legislative issue before the board.

Martin leveraged his position as a tie-breaker to push the commission to incorporate an “all comers” open invitation into a sectarian prayer policy. The commission agreed to incorporate some of the language from the state Senate’s invitation into the policy, while tasking the county attorney to work with the county clerk to work out the “mechanics” of the policy.

Davida Martin told the commission that Judge Beaty suggested that the opportunity to give the invocation should be advertised to nonbelievers, along with religious groups.

“If you think that meets the test of inclusivity, I can support that,” Commissioner Don Martin said.

The commissioners agreed to revisit the issue at their next briefing session.