Friday, May 15, 2015

Lincoln County Board of Commisioners to Discuss Policy Concering Invocations

Update (May 21): The Lincoln County Board of Commissioners approved a nondiscriminatory invocation policy on Monday, May 18. I spoke briefly during the public comments portion of the meeting - and just posted some quick reflections. Under their adopted policy, a “leader or appointee of any assembly that periodically and regularly meets within the county for the purpose of worshiping or discussing their religious perspectives” can sign up to deliver up to four invocations per year. The Hickory Humanist Alliance (a local AHA chapter) is currently working on the logistics for regular meetings in Lincoln County in the future.

In the wake of the recent Rowan County decision ruling that coercive government prayers that advance one faith to the exclusion of all others is unconstitutional, a local reporter for a small town newspaper elsewhere in North Carolina asked the Lincoln County Board of Commissioners chairman Carrol Mitchem what he thought about the ruling. The chairman's intolerant response quickly generated a local and national media feeding frenzy, calls for his resignation from some local residents, and a warning from Americans United for Separation of Church and State (you can read their press release and letter here). His own home town newspaper editorialized that he doesn't speak for their county, and some local Muslim and Jewish residents publicly expressed their outrage. In the secular and atheist community Hemant Mehta and J. T. Eberhard quickly weighed in on the controversy as well.

Meanwhile, at the Hickory Humanist Alliance we have been quietly working with several Lincoln County residents who have expressed interest in delivering a Humanist invocation at a future meeting of the Board. We hope to release more information about this effort in the near future. The recent U.S. Supreme Court decision in Town of Greece v. Galloway clearly prohibits municipalities from discriminating based on religion in deciding who may give opening invocations. And an earlier Supreme Court decision, Torcaso v. Watkins, recognized Secular Humanism as a “religion” (for purposes of the U.S. Constitution) against which it is impermissible to discriminate.

In the aftermath of the swift public reaction Chairman Mitchem has now backed away from his comments, and a policy concerning invocations has been added to the Board's agenda for Monday, May 18. Apparently cooler heads have prevailed, and someone consulted an attorney. We urge the Board to quickly adopt a policy of nondiscrimination that does not erect unnecessary barriers to participation by resident nontheists and religious minorities who may not have clergy or established organizations in Lincoln County. On at least two occasions in the past, the county allowed Christian laypeople to give invocations. Lay nontheists and religious minorities should be afforded the same opportunity.

According to the results of an extensive new Pew survey released earlier this week, the number of Americans who do not affiliate with any religion is continuing to grow. There are a number of reasons for this trend, but comments like those made by Chairman Mitchem are surely a factor. Voters have been growing increasingly weary of all the religious talk by our political leaders in recent years, and many nontheists in particular would prefer to get prayer out of government proceedings completely (and the government out of prayer). So we would certainly support the Lincoln County commissioners if they decide to abandon this practice entirely or even adopt a moment of silence to replace it, but if they insist on continuing their invocations we are committed to working with a Lincoln County resident to deliver one that is solemn and respectful and reflects the values that have long been part of our nation’s heritage - including tolerance for those with different views.

Note If you'd like to come out and join us at the Board's meeting on Monday, below are the logistics. They are expecting some local TV coverage and (of course) Fundamentalist Christian protestors. We'll be wearing our black shirts with the HHA logo on them. Be sure to say hello!

Lincoln County Board of Commissioners Meeting
Monday, May 18, 2015
6:30 PM

James W. Warren Citizens Center
115 West Main Street
Lincolnton, North Carolina

Lincoln County Board of Commissioners
Chairman Carrol Mitchem