County, King considering prayer issues

By Nicholas Elmes -

Following a request by Steven Hewett to provide an invocation at both a King City Council meeting and a Stokes County Board of Commissioners meeting and letters from Americans United for Separation of Church and State questioning the constitutionality of having council members or commissioners provide a prayer at the start of a meeting both governing bodies are currently considering crafting an invocation policy.

The King City Council has set a public hearing for it’s Nov. 2 meeting on a draft invocation policy currently being crafted. County commissioners have discussed the matter in a number of closed session meetings, but have not yet placed the issue on an agenda for an open meeting.

King City Manager Homer Dearmin said the city is still working out the details of a draft policy this week but expected the final draft policy to be available for public review at city hall by Oct. 19.

He said the policy, as it is currently being drafted, would direct the city clerk to compile and maintain a database of religious organizations within the city limits and within the King extraterritorial jurisdiction. He said the list would be complied by searching the local phone book for listings of churches, synagogues, congregations, temples, mosques or other religious assemblies, as well as research on the internet and consultation with the chamber of commerce. He said that any religious assembly within the defined area would eligible to be included on the list and could confirm inclusion through a written request.

He said if the inclusion of any religious organization was questioned, that inclusion would be verified based on the same criteria used by the Internal Revenue Service to determine tax exempt status.

According to Dearmin, the list could also allow the inclusion of religious assemblies located outside of the city if the assembly is attended by at least one resident.

Once the database is created, Dearmin said the city would send each organization on the list an invitation to offer an invocation at the beginning of council meetings.

“The clerk would sent out a letter every year to all of the religious institutions giving them an opportunity to sign up on a first-come first-serve basis,” said Dearmin. “They would not be able to do it for consecutive months or more than three times in a calendar year so there is an opportunity for all faiths to be represented and no one could monopolize the time.”

Dearmin said a back up list would be established for special meetings or in the event that a scheduled invocation giver had to cancel for some reason.

“Basically this policy is set up to meet the requirements that have been set up in the Supreme Court cases and recent U.S. District Court cases and make sure we are in compliance with the law,” said Dearmin. “We are trying to make sure that we are in compliance with the case law and the Constitution.”

The issue began in May when Hewett, who recently forced King into a settlement agreement over the flying of a Christian flag at the King Veteran’s Memorial, sent requests to both governing bodies to be allowed to give the invocation at an upcoming meeting.

Dearmin quickly responded in May, notifying Hewett that, at that time, the city did not invite clergy or other individuals to give invocations at meetings.

The county’s response is less clear, but, according to partially redacted closed session meeting minutes released last week, County Manager Rick Morris brought the request to the attention of the Board of Commissioners on May 26, at which time they got initial advice from County Attorney Ty Browder.

On June 8, Browder informed the commissioners in closed session that the county had received a letter from Americans United for Separation of Church and State and the board instructed him to reply that the board was gathering information and that the matter was under review.

On June 30, the City of King received a similar letter in which staff from Americans United for Separation of Church and State argued that “delivery of Christian prayers by members of the Council violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution,” and asked the council to adopt a policy that would allow outside speakers to deliver invocations on a nondiscriminatory basis.

The letter to King cited two recent cases, Lund v. Rowan County and Town of Greece v Galloway, claimed the city’s current practice was unconstitutional and requested the city suspend its current invocation practices.

Dearmin said the city council began discussing the crafting of an invocation policy with the city attorney during a closed session in June, with continued discussions in August, September and October. He added that the city had been contacted by Alliance Defending Freedom, a non-profit legal organization, who had offered to help craft an invocation policy and to provide free legal defense if that policy was challenged.

At the county level, the partially redacted closed session meeting minutes show that commissioners met with Dr. Ron Baity and attorney David Gibbs, from the Nation Center for Life and Liberty, in closed session on June 22. The advice provided to the board by Gibbs is redacted in the released minutes. Morris said Monday that the county had retained Gibbs as an attorney for the meeting and as a result his advice was protected under attorney client privilege. He did not know who had requested Gibbs and Baity to be included in the closed session.

County commissioners continued discussion of the issue in closed session on July 13 and July 27. Closed session meeting minutes for September have not been released yet.

County Board of Commissioners Chair Ronda Jones said Tuesday that the policy was still under review.

Nicholas Elmes may be reached at 336-591-8191 or on Twitter @NicholasElmes.

By Nicholas Elmes