SHELBY, N.C — When the Foothills Interfaith Assembly (FIA) was created earlier this year, it was inspired by concerns over public prayer policy in its local region. However, this was never supposed to be an issue that the group focused on. Nevertheless, the assembly has played a public part in shaping a recent prayer policy debate, which has made clear that religious political tensions are alive and well in the foothills region of North Carolina. A strong sentiment against Islam is evident, and Pagan members of the assembly are equally concerned about discriminatory policies and behavior.
The latest salvo came when the Cleveland County School Board replaced a moment of silence with public prayer at its meetings. North Carolina Piedmont Church of Wicca‘s Tony Brown told The Wild Hunt that the school board was reacting to “a lot of pressure from Christian groups in the community to do so. The public comments section of the last few meetings have been filled with calls for Christian prayer, met by thunderous applause and standing ovations. They even moved one of the meetings into a larger venue to accommodate the crowd.”
Brown explained that how the public expressed these opinions doesn’t, in his mind, bode well for the inclusive policy that was passed. “During three of the last four board meetings, when they called for a moment of silence dozens of people instead stood up and loudly recited the Lord’s Prayer,” he said. He worries about non-Christians having their prayers disrupted, building on what happened when the county commissioners allowed a Muslim to pray. “I don’t think it’s much of a leap for them to do the same over a prayer from another faith.”
The Lincoln County commissioners rescinded their inclusive prayer policy during the same meeting that saw its first non-Christian prayer, when FIA co-founder Duston Barto read verses from the Quran. The chairman of the commissioners walked out to keep his word that he would not “listen to a Muslim pray,” according to the Lincoln Times News. One woman in attendance held a sign which proclaimed, “No Moslem Prayer.” An unplanned vote at the end of that meeting rescinded the prayer policy, which had been offered as an alternative to the many years of prayer led by local Christian ministers.
Foothills Interfaith Assembly was formed in part to allow more people to qualify to lead such prayers, and that was an important test of the effort. That’s why Brown was concerned that the Cleveland School Board, if it didn’t have a plan to enforce decorum, would not be welcoming to prayers from minority religions, regardless of the wording of the policy, which includes requiring the superintendent to invite all religious groups to offer a prayer.
The underlying purpose for FIA, then and now, is to foster understanding and defuse hatred by allowing people of different faiths to get to know one another. Brown said that it’s “important to remember that we’re not really a political organization, even though we were born out of a political situation. We’re not just here to annoy government bureaucrats by praying at them. We want to make a difference at a deeper level.”
That’s a tall order right now, particularly when it comes to acceptance of Muslims. In this town where the man who killed nine people at the Mother Emmanuel Church was finally arrested, people who appear to practice Islam do not always feel safe. According to Barto, two Muslim women, who are members of FIA, have been missing meetings recently because they don’t wish to go out in public wearing a hijab. It is that climate of fear and mistrust that FIA seeks to undermine with members of different religions leading discussions at monthly meetings. However, worldwide attacks by the hate group Daesh pose a significant challenge.
Combatting fear and hate is an abstract goal, albeit an important one. Prayer at public meetings is more tangible. Therefore, Brown and Barto both have an interest in making sure that any such invocation is not offered exclusively to members of one religion. Barto noted that “while people accuse us of being instigators in these events, it is important to point out that in both cases it was Christians who wanted to force an all-Christian agenda on the population that brought us to the microphone. We stood in defense of liberty, not in opposition of religious expression.”
In the meantime, the FIA continues to draw people to its meetings, and those people do practice a variety of faiths. In addition to the aforementioned Wiccan and Muslim members, several Christian sects are represented, along with Ba’hai and Humanism. “We were invited to hold a meeting in the fellowship hall of a Presbyterian church in Lincolnton, which was wonderful,” Brown said. He hopes the assembly will be able to rotate its meetings through a continually expanding list of locations.
There are a number of other Pagan and related faiths in this part of the state, Brown said that this list includes Druids, and groups that follow Gardnerian and Strega traditions. He has gotten expressions of interest from several of them, and he’s ambitiously thinking forward to deeper interfaith work for the assembly, such as hosting a multi-faith presentation on the topic of rebirth, perhaps in the spring.
Whether springtime, for all its associations with new beginnings, is enough to reboot the political-religious tensions that keep cropping up in the Foothills, is a question yet to be answered.