By Steve Harrison, The Charlotte Observer
A week after Mayor Jennifer Roberts said the City Council would stop a traditional prayer before meetings, council members may bring it back before this evening’s council meeting.
City Attorney Bob Hagemann told the council’s Governance and Accountability committee Monday afternoon that he believed the city’s invocation is constitutional, but he offered some suggestions to give the city extra protection.
Though council members don’t attempt to convert anyone, Hagemann reminded them that they should not “proselytize or denigrate other faiths or non-believers.” He said the city should not ask the audience to join in a prayer, and if a council member gives the prayer while standing, he or she should not ask or direct the audience to stand.
This summer, the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that Rowan County commissioners couldn’t open meetings with explicitly sectarian prayers from just one faith. Since that decision, Hagemann has been reviewing the case and Roberts has been questioning whether the city should continue the public prayers.
At last week’s meeting, council members were discussing in closed session an unrelated lawsuit. They were meeting in a separate room from the main council chamber.
After that closed session, Roberts brought up the issue of the council prayers and whether they should continue. The mayor then asked Hagemann whether the prayers should be discontinued. Hagemann told the mayor that would be a safe decision, but he did not tell the mayor or council they were in legal jeopardy for continuing the prayer or that they should stop.
In emails to council members and Roberts Monday last week, Hagemann said a prayer would be OK.
“Just to be clear, I have not concluded and have not advised that the Council’s invocation practice is unconstitutional. And I did not advise you to end the practice,” he wrote. “In light of the Fourth Circuit’s decision in the Rowan County case described below, there clearly are legal risks with invocation practices. Obviously, as I stated to you tonight, not providing invocations is 100% legally safe. But the Fourth Circuit did not hold that invocations at the beginning of a county commission or city council meeting are per se unconstitutional.”
Charlotte City Council typically starts its meetings with a prayer by one of the council members. The prayers vary from one council member to another, sometimes including a poem, literary passage or more traditional prayer.
The prayers often refer only to God. Sometimes they reference Jesus Christ. There hasn’t been a prayer specifically about a religion such as Islam or Buddhism in at least a decade.
On the agenda for Monday night’s meeting, “invocation” is listed as one of the city’s items of business.