The High Point, N.C. City Council meeting is not normally a hot ticket. The only other time I’ve attended was as a correspondent for a magazine, and there were perhaps a dozen people watching, and not very attentively at that. But Monday night was different. A local pastor had thrown down the gauntlet to the City Council in the form of a letter to the editor. He and his flock would be there to represent Jesus in the meeting. I felt it was my civic duty to at least get a look at them, so I headed down to City Hall. Conveniently enough, my husband works there, so I was able to hand off the baby on my way up to Council Chambers.
The history of the dispute is pretty straightforward. Apparently, the council had been opening with prayer that included Jesus until an unnamed troublemaker called the ACLU. According to the local paper, this happened in November, but it seems to have come to a head in the past couple of weeks. The city obtained legal advice which resulted in a policy of non-sectarian prayer until the ACLU’s lawsuit against a nearby local government is settled. After that, High Point’s council may change the policy again if it seems prudent.
Well, Jesus’ faithful were not amused by the omission of His name from the prayer. They all sat politely through the opening prayer (which didn’t mention Jesus) and the city’s other business of the day—a house demolished, a sewer pipe extended, yada yada. Then the fireworks began. Councilman Alexander offered a resolution to change the prayer. It had obviously been vetted by a team of lawyers and was quickly seconded as the Christians booed. Then their hero, Councilman Pugh, offered a competing resolution which would allow each council member on a rotating basis to offer his or her own prayer without restriction, “according to the dictates of his or her own conscience.” The crowd applauded. Then the Mayor asked for a second, and there was none. You could have heard a pin drop. The Mayor declared the resolution failed, and Councilman Wilkins spoke up, saying that he agreed with Pugh’s resolution. Wilkins is a minister of some sort, I believe. The crowd was furious! “Why didn’t you second the motion?” several shouted. I’m not sure he ever gave much of a reason, but I’m assuming he was swayed by the legal arguments in favor of the other resolution. During the comments period, Wilkins was chided for “denying Jesus.”
I sat scribbling in my notebook, looking like a reporter. It seemed prudent to seem impartial. I was definitely in the minority. During the cheers and standing ovations, I was one of maybe a dozen people out of the 200 or so who didn’t join in.
You know, I could make fun of the Christians. I wrote down some pretty snarky comments in my little notebook. But, in the end, I couldn’t help being charmed by them. Their enthusiasm and dedication are truly admirable. If they were on the side of the Constitution rather than the Bible, we wouldn’t be in the mess we’re in today. Heck, even if they all just understood that the two are not mutually exclusive, we’d be in better shape.
One commenter said something that really made me think. “You have just established a state religion,” he said to the council. “By telling us how to pray, you’ve just done what you think you’re trying to prevent.” I wanted to shout, “Amen!” (Really, it’s catching, especially for someone who grew up in the Baptist church.) The meeting often took on the tenor of a sermon, with nodding heads and whispers of “yes,” and “praise Jesus.”
I found myself, to my great astonishment, on the protesters’ side, firmly against the non-sectarian prayer idea. I’ve never been more sure that prayer does not belong in a taxpayer-funded public meeting. By sanctioning any sort of prayer at all, the City is indeed establishing a religion. One of the reasons given for opening with prayer was to “solemnify” the event. In other words, some religion is better than no religion. But, isn’t saying a watered-down prayer to a vague deity a waste of time? Not to mention a nauseating mixture of church with state. Both are cheapened in the mingling. Another believer said, “By not allowing a Christian to pray in Jesus’ name, you are disparaging his faith.” That makes perfect sense to me. I might say that, by forcing me to listen to any kind of prayer at a city council meeting, you are disparaging my faith in the Constitution…the Enlightenment…Reason Itself even!
Of course, there were the predictable diatribes against the ACLU. I think we officially jumped the shark when somebody mentioned NAMBLA. They think it’s okay for grown men to have sex with 9-year-old boys! The ACLU would allow pornography in the schools! Their sole intent is to destroy Christianity! (Councilman Pugh said that last one. I had to fake a cough to disguise my laughter. It was the only time during the night that I lost my poker face.)
A good deal of the anger in the room could have been defused had the comment period been held before the vote on the resolution. People were standing and shouting in frustration. I doubt we’ve seen the last of this group. It was quite a diverse crowd. There were teens, senior citizens, African Americans, good ol’ boys--a pretty good cross-section of High Point, or at least the middle-to-low end of the economic scale. But, make no mistake, the speakers were not rubes. They were quite well-spoken and informed, citing court cases more than Bible verses. They came prepared.
I was disappointed that, despite the taunting letter in the paper, no progressives showed up, or at least not in enough numbers to feel comfortable speaking out in such an unfriendly crowd. I considered signing up to speak, but when I saw that I’d likely be the only church-state separationist, I caved and played reporter.
Cross-posted at Dailykos: http://www.dailykos.com/storyonly/2007/7/17/201051/527