Before each Town Council meeting starts in this town, either a local pastor or council member will ask the crowd to bow their heads. He or she then prays.
The prayers, which are Christian, usually ask for God’s guidance when elected officials make decisions.
One Garner resident is asking the Garner Town Council to stop that.
“Even though religious invocations are legal ... they are poor practice,” Garner resident Chris Lamb wrote in a letter sent to the mayor and all five Town Council members. “They alienate members of the community, deprive constituents of the opportunity for full community engagement, and force all residents to support a religious exercise that may be contrary to their own beliefs.”
Lamb writes that the prayer reduces civic and social engagement and makes many residents feel unwelcome and alienated. He said some “nonreligious” residents do not attend council meetings solely because “invocations send a message of religious preference.”
“First, any claims of religion’s relevance to city business – building permits, ordinances, zoning, and the like – are ludicrous,” Lamb wrote. “How critical is divine guidance, after all, when deciding whether to issue a building permit for Panera Bread?”
Lamb writes that the solution is to stop praying before meetings. He ends his letter by saying “If you need another ten signatures, just ask. If you’d like another hundred on top of that, give me a week.”
Objection to invocations at government meetings is not uncommon.
A divided panel of the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals just last week upheld the right for the Rowan County Board of Commissioners to open their meetings with mostly Christian invocations, saying it did not violate the separation of church and state, according to the Charlotte Observer.
Past rulings are usually divided among party lines.
Garner Mayor Ronnie Williams said he disagreed with stopping prayer before meetings. He said the council tends to be challenged on the issue every few years. Six years ago the American Civil Liberties Union got involved, Williams said.
“We acknowledged receipt of the concern and kept doing it,” Williams said. “My problem is this: If we’ve got coined money that says ‘In God we trust’ on it and paper money with the same thing on there, it shouldn’t be a problem.”
Williams said the Town Council has not yet had a discussion on the latest letter, but he does not anticipate any changes.
“We appreciate his opinion of course, but to my knowledge we are not going to change,” he said.
Many Triangle town and city governments pray before their meetings, while others try to avoid the issue all together. Knightdale, Wendell, Holly Springs, Morrisville, Fuquay-Varina, and councils and boards in Johnston County all give a Christian invocation.
The Durham City Council and the Durham school board have a moment of silence. Orange County, Chapel Hill, Hillsborough, Zebulon, and the Wake County school board do not open their meetings with prayer.
Members of the Wake County Board of Commissioners take turns saying non-sectarian prayers. And Raleigh has an invocation that incorporates multiple religions.
Tammy Grubb, Paul A. Specht, T. Keung Hui, Henry Gargan, Matt Goad, Johnny Whitfield and Virginia Bridges contributed to this report.