Fayetteville, N.C. — City officials were never told they couldn't invoke the name of Jesus in prayers at public meetings, the city attorney said in a recent memo released Monday to WRAL News.
Fayetteville City Attorney Karen M. McDonald sent the Oct. 9 memo to Mayor Tony Chavonne and members of the City Council several days after WRAL reported on a May 14 memo in which she asked government employees to refrain from "frequent invocation of the name of Jesus" at public events.
The May 14 memo noted that the American Civil Liberties Union had challenged several local governments across the state over opening prayers at public meetings and that Fayetteville could be held liable if a local resident sued the city over prayers at City Council meetings.
"Frequent invoking of the name of Jesus (or any other Deity) in opening prayer could lead to a lawsuit under the federal civil rights statute," McDonald wrote in the May memo, acknowledging that she understood the sensitive nature of the subject. "We must adhere to the constitutional standard that opening prayers are non-sectarian and neutral."
After an outcry by local residents and some officials – Chavonne and Councilman D.J. Haire insisted that invocations at public meetings wouldn't change – McDonald issued her second memo, blaming the news report for creating confusion.
"The purpose of the memo was to reiterate the law and to point out that a North Carolina jurisdiction had been sued," she wrote in the second memo. "As with all legal advice, having advised you of the law and the risk associated with violating the law, it is your decision as to whether to adhere to the law."
WRAL stands by its reporting of the initial memo.
McDonald also said in the follow-up memo that she works with city officials to ensure people from various faiths are allowed to provide the invocation at City Council meetings.