Blount County Commission pressured on prayer
By Joel Davis | (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Under pressure from an Wisconsin-based advocacy group, the Blount County Commission on May 16 will consider approval of a formal written policy clarifying its practice of allowing prayer prior to its monthly meetings.
The Freedom From Religion Foundation Inc., whose stated purpose is “to promote the constitutional principle of separation of state and church,” has been corresponding with the county in an effort to get commissioners to modify the long-standing practice.“Ultimately, the foundation doesn’t believe that legislative bodies like the County Commission should have prayer before their meetings at all,” said Rebecca Markert, FFRF staff attorney. “It’s unnecessary. They could just get down to business, but if they do pray before meetings they have to obey the most current dictates that say they cannot pray to a specific deity.”
Sitting as the County Agenda Committee on Tuesday, commissioners voted to place the policy and other items on the agenda of their regular monthly meeting. Commissioner Gerald Kirby, one of the sponsors, said the change is needed for legal reasons.
“We got an outside influence trying to take it all the way out — you won’t have nothing. This resolution is being brought forward to counteract what has been happening for the last year, year-and-a-half.”
Commissioner Mike Caylor expressed indignation that the county was being forced to make the decision based on the actions of an outside party.
“Being forced to change the way we have our invocations is something I don’t agree with,” he said. “I know we have to. I know if we don’t, we’re going to be sued, and we’re going to be stuck with several hundred thousand dollars of legal fees, and we’re going to lose, but, making that choice, we don’t have to enjoy it.”
Caylor read a list of all the denominations that had been represented during invocations during the past three years. “We do not have a Jewish Synagogue here, but if we did, I’d welcome them to come and pray,” he said.
Under the guidelines, commissioners can choose to deliver the invocation or assign someone else to do so. The resolution would prohibit coercion: “No member or employee of the commission or any other person in attendance at the meeting shall be required to participate in any devotional that is offered.”
The proposal also includes language to avoid the appearance of pushing a particular faith: “No guidelines or limitations shall be issued regarding an invocation’s content, except that the commission shall request by the language of this policy that no devotional should proselytize or advance any faith, or disparage the religious faith or nonreligious views of others.
“...This policy is not intended, and shall not be implemented or construed in any way, to affiliate the commission with, nor express the commission’s preference for, any faith or religious denomination.
“Rather, this policy is intended to acknowledge and express the commission’s respect for the diversity of religious denominations and faiths represented and practiced among the citizens of the county of Blount.”
Markert said that the foundation originally sent a letter to the County Commission back in 2010 after a local citizen contacted them concerning the prayers.
“We understand they did not change their practice at all,” Markert said.
Nonsectarian prayers are permissible, Markert said, but, in the foundation’s view, the county has been violating that principle. “It is our understanding that the prayers ended ‘in Jesus’ name’ often if not all the time.”
The foundation has not threatened legal action yet. “We have not recently gone to court over that, but we have been looking at different bodies whose practices cross the line, and we are considering litigation there,” Markert said. “We’ve had a lot of success in stopping or changing prayer practices just through letter writing. That’s the preferred method. It’s a lot cheaper for everyone.”
Commissioners also voted to consider a proposal to extend its current letters of credit with BB&T at a better price than under the current contract but to also request proposals from other banks to look for an even better deal.
“If this is approved by the commission next week, we will immediately seek proposals and have a recommendation back by August,” County Finance Director Randy Vineyard said.
“OK,” Commissioner Jim Folts said. “You’re talking my language.”
The Agenda Committee also voted to consider a request from Blackberry Farm to rezone 74 acres of land to a new classification designed for resorts. Blackberry Farm LLC and Singing Brook Conservancy have requested rezoning of the land along West Millers Cove Road in Walland from R-1- Rural District 1 and R-2-Rural District 2 to PRRD-Planned Rural Resort District.
The PRRD is meant to simplify the planning and zoning requests that Blackberry Farm has to make when seeking to expand. The resort has not specified its expansion plans.
The area for the PRRD zone is limited to land adjacent to or directly accessible from West Millers Cove Road containing R-1-zoned land and any adjacent R-2-zoned land integral to a planned concept. The minimum area to be rezoned would be 40 acres.
At its next regular meeting, the commission will also consider:
• Rezoning property at 225 and 235 Old Glory Road from suburbanizing to commercial.
• Rezoning property on Cedar Creek Road from R-1 to Commercial.