SALISBURY, N.C. – A large crowd turned out at the Rowan County Commission meeting Monday night to see if members would offer an opening prayer following a lawsuit filed by the ACLU last week, regarding that prayer.
One commissioner opened with an invocation in the name of “personal Lord and Savior, Jesus.”
It came after a 90-minute closed-door emergency session of the commission with its lawyers concerning the lawsuit.
The commissioners voted unanimously to find legal representation to fight the ACLU lawsuit.
One woman who spoke to the commissioners during the public comment session started singing a hymn to Jesus and some members in the audience joined in with her.
During the closed-door session, commissioners heard from attorney Bryce Neier. He volunteers with a group called Alliance to Defend Freedom -- a group that has defended cases like this before.
“You have first amendment rights. You do have the right to associate and the freedom of religious expression and sometimes the courts are right and sometimes the courts are wrong,” said Neier.
Some residents told the commissioners that they were wrong and needed to act more like public officials and represent everyone in the county.
That was the view of resident John Burke, who said, “When you offer a prayer as public officials, you should be offering it for all 135,000 people, not just for the ones that are of your particular tradition, the Protestant tradition."
Other residents, like Jason Josey, had trouble controlling their emotions as they offered support to the commissioners.
“What I am asking you today is to stand fast and to let you know that there are those that are behind you and there are those that will support you financially,” he said.
Rev. Bill Godair of the Cornerstone Church carried a giant check for $10,000 to go towards legal costs to fight the ACLU.
“The constitution gives us the freedom of religion, not the freedom from religion,” he said.
The ACLU’s lawsuit accused Rowan County leaders of violating the First and 14th amendments.
It lists three residents as plaintiffs and asks for an injunction. The plaintiffs say the prayers seem to indicate the county has a preference for one specific religion.
“It says to me the county doesn't send out a message about being a welcoming place about not accepting diversity. And I feel it harms the county. I feel it goes beyond a prayer making me uncomfortable,” said Nan Lund, one of the plaintiffs.
“They are giving me instruction in their religion. And I don't feel like that's appropriate as a prayer, and it’s certainly not appropriate at a government meeting," said Liesa Montag-Siegel, another plaintiff.
A 2011 federal court ruling said that boards can use an invocation but only if it doesn’t endorse a specific prayer.