The Rowan County Commission had its first meeting last week, after the US Supreme Court decided not to hear its appeal to allow commissioners themselves to open meetings with prayer. As they’ve gotten used to doing over the past couple years, commissioners invited Chaplain Michael Taylor from the sheriff’s department to give the prayer.
"We’ll always keep in mind of doing what is right, dear Lord. Thank you for the privilege we have to be here, Lord. And thank you for this county we live in, dear Lord. And thank you for the many people we’ve got to be able to know and see their dedication and love for this county, also. Guide us and direct us now, in Jesus' name, we pray," said Taylor.
Commission Chairman Greg Edds said that’s the way prayers will continue at meetings. He spoke to WFAE's Marshall Terry.
The interview has been edited for clarity.
Terry: Are you still asking those in attendance to take part in that prayer?
Edds: "We haven't done that for some time and the way I do it is we bring the clergy up front and I explain that these are solemnizing prayers, that solemnizing prayers are for the commissioners and the commissioners alone, that they're there to bring some solemnity and seriousness to the moment. And I just ask the commissioners to join and so what the audience does is completely and totally in their own control."
Terry: What is lost in letting a chaplain or someone else who's not a commissioner lead those prayers?
Edds: "The whole issue for us was really the issue of speech and the question really...should the courts be allowed to dictate who can pray and where they can pray? And this is a question that has not really been answered. We have a case back in the 80s that was a huge prayer case called Marsh. Then, fast forward to here in 2014 with the Town of Greece case in the second circuit that decided what could be prayed. That case said that folks should be allowed to pray in their own faith tradition, that we should not be censoring prayer and then the real question was then, 'who can pray?' Isn't a paid chaplain the same as the state? That's been our question all along. If we can bring in a pastor or a paid chaplain then why not us? We know this is an issue across the whole country. And we didn't want to shrink from it. We believe this is an issue that needs to be settled."
Terry: At the center of this issue is the question of "separation of church and state." What does that phrase mean to you?
Edds: "We hear that quite often and very often we find that those that oppose use that phrase oftentimes as a tool to try to censor an important part of our history and our traditions. But censorship is simply not a part of America's tradition and our values. Listen, it's simple. We know from previous decisions by the U.S. Supreme Court that a paid government worker or a chaplain can lead lawmakers in prayer. So we believe that surely we, the commissioners, should be able to pray for our own meeting as well."
Terry: But isn't there a distinction between a paid chaplain and an elected official who is essentially an embodiment of the state?
Edds: "We don't believe so. I'm not an attorney, [but] I've certainly studied this a lot. But we look at Marsh and the issue of Marsh was could you use a paid chaplain and the answer back and that decision was yes. And so if the state is going to use dollars or our commission would use dollars or appoint someone to speak for them, then why can't we speak ourselves. These are the legal issues that are still for us and we believe will still have to be decided by the courts because by not agreeing to here our case, the case still needs to be decided."