The Lincoln County Commission in North Carolina may not prohibit non-Christians from offering opening prayers at its meetings, Americans United for Separation of Church and State says.
In a letter sent today, Americans United makes it clear to the commissioners that the First Amendment does not permit government to favor one religion over others.
“Lincoln County Commission Chair Carrol Mitchem appears to have little understanding of how the U.S. Constitution operates,” said the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United. “I have some advice for Mr. Mitchem: Government exists to serve all people, not just the ones who share your belief system. If you can’t accept that, I suggest you find another line of work.”
AU’s letter was prompted by Mitchem’s recent comments, in which he told local news outlets that he has no intention of allowing any non-Christians to offer invocations before commission meetings because Christians constitute a majority in the United States.
“I don’t need no Arab or Muslim or whoever telling me what to do or us here in the county what to do about praying,” Mitchem said. “If they don’t like it, stay the hell away.”
In its letter, Americans United says the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Town of Greece v. Galloway does not permit government to engage in religious discrimination when it comes to legislative prayer.
Asserts the letter, “[T]he Court made clear that invocation practices must not be ‘exploited to proselytize or advance any one, or to disparage any other, faith or belief.’ Yet Chairman Mitchem made various pro-Christian and anti-Muslim comments to the media that indicate that he wishes to use the county’s invocation practice exactly for such ‘impermissible government purpose[s].’”
Americans United Associate Legal Director Alex J. Luchenitser, who wrote the letter, said Mitchem is off base.
“The Supreme Court was clear in Greece; while it is acceptable for Christian references to be included in opening prayers, lawmakers may not kick all other viewpoints to the sideline,” Luchenitser said. “A good-faith effort must be made to welcome all – including non-believers.”
The letter asks for a response within 30 days.
Americans United is a religious liberty watchdog group based in Washington, D.C. Founded in 1947, the organization educates Americans about the importance of church-state separation in safeguarding religious freedom.