Local News

Mayor: Fayetteville Prayers Can Include 'Jesus'

Posted October 10, 2007 1:32 p.m. EDT
Updated October 10, 2007 7:33 p.m. EDT

— City officials will continue to invoke the name of Jesus in prayers at official meetings, despite a memo from the city attorney, Fayetteville Mayor Tony Chavonne said Wednesday.

Fayetteville City Attorney Karen M. McDonald and Cumberland County Attorney Grainger Barrett both asked city and county government employees to refrain from "frequent invocation of the name of Jesus" in prayers at public 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 her memo, acknowledging that she understood the sensitive nature of the subject. "We must adhere to the constitutional standard that opening prayers are neutral."

The memo noted that several local governments across the state have been challenged by the American Civil Liberties Union about their opening prayers.

But Chavonne said the memo was an advisory, not a directive. The city's legal counsel doesn't create policy, he said.

“The legal staff, it’s their responsibility to make sure we’re aware of issues,” Chavonne said. "But the council has never considered any changes to our policy – the mayor hasn't. We never even voted on it, never even discussed it."

City Councilman D.J. Haire said the language of the memo made it sound like policy.

"If you don't sit down and interpret that to me, then someone might think so," said Haire, who added that he plans to continue invoking Jesus whenever he's selected to pray before council meetings.

“My thing is this: What do you do? Do you just kind of quietly sit out and go along with it?” he said. "It is not so much to stop prayer as it is to stop you from praying in the name of Jesus."

McDonald couldn't be reached for comment Wednesday.

Pastors who are invited to pray are informed of the possible legal consequences about invoking a specific deity, Haire said, and many of them refrain from mentioning Jesus.

“They felt comfortable enough to go along with the safeguard that was put in front of them, but I have not been and I will not be,” he said.

Fayetteville residents have criticized what they saw as an anti-Christian policy since WRAL first reported the memo last Friday. Chavonne conducted an interview Tuesday on a local Christian radio station to respond to the criticism.

Anyone in city government is free to mention any deity at city-sponsored events, he said.

"Occasionally, people come in and invoke – we have people come in from the Muslim and Jewish faith, and they pray to their god," he said, adding that a military city like Fayetteville would be reluctant to infringe of people's freedoms.

"People across the world are defending that freedom," he said. "This will be the last city that will ever take any steps to restrict people's right to pray – and to pray to the god of their choice."