LINCOLNTON, North Carolina — Prayer at public meetings is often a battleground with members of minority faiths seeking to have their viewpoints represented, while others argue that such religious ceremony doesn’t belong in a governmental setting. Since the Supreme Court’s 2014 Town of Greece v Galloway decision that allowed such prayers provided minority faiths are included, Pagans and others have sought to test those boundaries. For example, the pantheist David Suhor sang an invocation of the quarters at a county commission meeting in Florida. More recently, when the issue of inclusiveness sprang up in the foothills region of North Carolina, it led to a new level of interfaith dialog in the form of the Foothills Interfaith Assembly.The commissioners of Lincoln County in North Carolina open their meetings with a prayer, and it’s always been a Christian one. When another county in the state was forced by a federal judge to cease pre-meeting prayers altogether, a reporter asked Caroll Mitchem, chairman of the Lincoln County Board of Commissioners, if any changes would be made to their meetings. Mitchem’s response was to the point. She said that prayers — and only Christian ones — would continue. He was quoted in The Lincoln Times-News.
“A Muslim? He comes in here to say a prayer, I’m going to tell him to leave,” Mitchem said. “I have no use for (those) people. They don’t need to be here praying to Allah or whoever the hell they pray to. I’m not going to listen to (a) Muslim pray.”
Mitchem’s comments caught the attention of local Muslim community as well as others practicing minority faiths in the county, and two of them showed up at the next meeting to speak to the issue. They were Reverend Tony Brown of the North Carolina Piedmont Church of Wicca, and Duston Barto, a Muslim who doesn’t yet belong to a specific spiritual community. During that meeting, commissioners softened Mitchem’s comments into a policy that said that “the religious leaders or chosen leaders of any assembly that periodically and regularly meets in Lincoln County for the purpose of worshiping or discussing their religious perspectives are invited to offer an invocation before a meeting of the Lincoln County Board of Commissioners.”
In those words, the two men saw an opportunity to have their faiths included, but the idea quickly grew well beyond a mechanism to promote religious freedom. “The policy said any faith could give a prayer, if it was sponsored by something that met in county,” Brown said. “I don’t know if it was designed to be restrictive, but the thought might have been to put up barriers that ensure only established faiths qualify.”
Barto and Brown created the Foothills Interfaith Assembly — named not for the county, but the more inclusive region of the state — as a way to allow people of different religions to engage with one another around their beliefs. Qualifying to offer prayers was the impetus, but Brown said that from the get-go the deeper idea was to “take advantage of everything else that interfaith can do.”
The first meeting had much better attendance than Brown had expected, and was spent hashing out some of the formative of the assembly. “A dozen people were there, and we went around introducing ourselves and explaining what brought us here, and our personal goals for the group. We hashed those around into group goals, and from that we came up with a list of five guiding principles.”
Those principles were given to a subcommittee which was tasked with writing a mission statement, which Brown expected to be voted upon at the June 30 meeting. That sort of administrivia is expected to become less prominent as the group finds its rhythm.
Based on who attended that first meeting, Brown expects the future get-togethers to offer robust opportunities to learn about different traditions. Besides himself and Barto, the group includes members of the Baha’i faith, a Baptist minister from an intentional Christian community, a Celtic Pagan, and a non-denominational Christian. “The diversity of people was a surprise, especially in Lincoln County, North Carolina,” he said. Interfaith work “always will appeal more to minority faiths, but we can band together, lift each other up, [and have a] better chance of being heard than whispering alone.”
The group’s structure will likely settle into a pattern of education, discussion, and socialization. “Ultimately I hope that people will come together, and in the first part of the meeting a person presents or there is a panel,” Brown explained, for example, “the basics of Baha’i, followed by questions and answers, or a panel on reciprocity with members of different faiths to explain its role in their tradition. It will be dialogue, and meeting as equals.”