Following an opening invocation delivered by Commissioner James Booth which several times invoked the name of Jesus Christ, the Stokes County Board of Commissioners heard from two speakers who presented very different viewpoints on the question of how the board should deal with opening prayers.
Steven Hewett told the board that a public meeting of elected officials is not the place for prayer.
“Mr. Booth likes to talk about his faith and the Bible all the time in these meetings,” said Hewett. “This not the place for it.”
Hewett asked the board why they had sought advice on the matter from outside attorneys and clergy.
“I was rather disappointed in hearing you had a secret meeting on prayer with people who do not even live in this county,” he said, referencing a closed session meeting held with Dr. Ron Baity and attorney David Gibbs on June 22. “Baity has no business being here other than to come in here and spread his hate. David Gibbs asked people to encourage me to leave town because they believed differently than I do.
“I want to know why you are having secret meetings, why they can’t be public,” added Hewett. “But what bothers me more is you don’t make this an inclusive country. You exclude people like me who happen to be an atheist. I am a first class citizen just like everybody else. I pay taxes here and these people you invite here do not.”
King resident Stephen James told the board he felt Hewett’s argument was nonsense.
“He just stated he is an atheist,” said James. “There is no prayer for him so you can drop the issue from your agenda now. He is just a spoiled brat jackass who has done everything he can to cause problems in this county and the city of King.”
James said the Constitution’s first amendment which calls for freedom of religion had nothing to do with a Christian flag, a statue or prayer before meetings.
“There is no such thing as the separation of church and state,” said James. “I think you can move on from the issue with his statement that he is an atheist.”
The issue of prayer before meetings began in May when Hewett requested permission to provide an invocation at both a County Commissioners and King City Council meeting. That request was refused by both boards, citing the fact that neither board currently had a policy on prayer.
In June both boards received letters from Americans United for Separation of Church and State requesting they develop a prayer policy which would provide equity to citizens of different faiths.
King has set a public hearing on a proposed policy during their regular November meeting, but the county commissioners have not discussed the policy in open session yet.
Last week Board Chair Ronda Jones said the policy was still under review at the county level, but Commissioner Jimmy Walker said Monday that he felt the board was only “gathering information” at this point.
Nicholas Elmes may be reached at 336-591-8191 or on Twitter @NicholasElmes.