Boyle County Fiscal Court unanimously decided today to have “non-denominational” prayers at the beginning of its meetings.
Magistrates had reluctantly decided Jan. 8 to change the prayer portion of meeting agenda to a “moment of silence.”
Boyle resident Ricky Smith, a former Christian who is now an atheist, had privately objected to what he felt were Judeo-Christian prayers during meetings. Smith expressed an intent to sue the county if officials did not keep church and state separate; he believes Fiscal Court is pushing Christianity in opposition to the Constitution.
Dozens of people filled the courtroom today, forcing some to stand out in the hallway. Before taking public comments, Boyle Judge-Executive Harold McKinney asked County Attorney Richard Campbell to read from an 11-page letter he had prepared regarding whether it is unconstitutional to have prayer during local government meetings.
“...your current practice of having a moment of silence to reflect on the burdens of your official...duties as you start each meeting would not, in my opinion, be inappropriate...” Campbell wrote.
Having prayers that include terms related to Jesus Christ either immediately before the meeting or during the meeting would not be appropriate, according to Campbell. Since the vote to take prayer out of public meetings, Magistrate Phil Sammons has led several prayers before the official meetings.
Sammons led a prayer today that ended less than 30 seconds before McKinney officially opened the meeting.
“Let me have everybody’s attention, please,” said Magistrate John Caywood just before the meeting. “...at this time, I’d like to ask Magistrate Sammons to please lead us in prayer. Anybody who’s uncomfortable with this, we’ll give you a moment to step outside.”
Smith was the only audience member who stepped out of the courtroom.
“...our most gracious Heavenly Father, we come to you today with sad hearts,” Sammons said. “We’re so sad that we as a nation have let such a small minority group tell us what to do. Lord, I ask forgiveness for myself, but I’m of the old school where we don’t run, we fight. So, forgive me for that.”
“Lord, we ask You to be with us always today...we just ask Your special blessing for this court, this good Christian bunch of people that are always trying to do the right thing for the county. We ask all this in Your Son’s precious name. Amen.”
Once the meeting officially began, McKinney held a 20-second moment of silence for “whatever you choose to contemplate.”
The judge reminded the audience to remain “civil” and abstain from personal attacks. Referring to a list of people who requested to speak about the issue of prayer during meetings, McKinney called Smith as the first speaker. The judge limited each speaker to two and a half minutes.
“This has moved from a separation of church issue to a discrimination issue,” Smith said.
He said having to leave during a prayer “singles that person out” and makes people with differing beliefs into “second-class citizens.”
“By no way, shape or form should government ever, ever single out someone’s belief,” Smith said. “I don’t care if they’re down here at the sheriff’s office or the licensing department...”
“This is not an attack on Christians as a lot of people are wanting to take this. This is asking for equality and respect for all people, for all cultures, for all religions...not just for any one group, but all people.”
McKinney thanked Smith for his comments and expressed appreciation for his respectful conduct during the meeting.
The judge then called Sam Irvin to the podium to “try to get some different ideas on the board.”
“In a time when our economy’s in shambles...unemployment is high...and there’s a threat of terrorism and health issues dividing us, do we really want to say to God right now that ‘You’re not welcome,’” Irvin said.