GREENSBORO — You might have been thinking that Greensboro City Council members need divine intervention to help them run the city right.
Mayor Bill Knight is going a step further. He’s bringing prayer to the group’s regular meetings.
The moment of silence at the beginning of the City Council meetings will be replaced by an invocation, something the mayor has the authority to include.
“I think this adds a very distinctly America quality and a very necessary element,” he said. “We all believe in something. This is an opportunity to exercise that without infringing on the government-religion prohibition.”
His move reverses a long-standing City Council practice. It comes as the practice of praying before meetings is being attacked elsewhere — notably in Forsyth County, where commissioners lost a legal battle against their invocations.
Knight, who took office in December, said he found that almost all government bodies in the area have some kind of prayer before their meetings.
The High Point City Council has a policy that invocations will not include sectarian references.
The Guilford County commissioners switched to a prayer from a moment of silence about 20 years ago. They invite a variety of faith leaders to do their invocation.
The N.C. House and Senate both have a chaplain who offers prayers at the beginning of each day’s session.
Knight said he will invite people from a broad spectrum of the faith community to participate so that no group is left out. “I think it will become apparent pretty quickly it is important,” Knight said. “It’s part of our culture. It’s part of our way of life. We’re not going to trample on anyone’s liberties.”
Being inclusive of various faith groups — although nice — isn’t enough to satisfy the law in regard to prayer at public meetings, according to the ACLU of North Carolina.
It represents the Forsyth County residents who have taken the county commissioners to court over public prayer.
The person leading the prayer can mention God but can’t invoke the name of Jesus or Mohammed, said Katy Parker, legal director of the ACLU of North Carolina.
“You can’t mention a deity that is specific to one particular sect,” Parker said.
In the Forsyth County case, where the residents have prevailed against the commissioners in court twice, Jesus Christ was mentioned by name in a majority of the invocations, Parker said.
“We believe we won because the law was already established on this issue,” she said.
The Forsyth County case is being appealed.
City Council members have not debated the plan to add an invocation to their meeting, although Knight informed them of his decision.
Councilman Danny Thompson said it’s the mayor’s prerogative to make the decision. He said he already uses the moment of silence to ask to be humble and wise and to have heart.
“Any time there is an opportunity to pray, I do,” he said. “I believe in a higher authority.”
Councilman Robbie Perkins, however, said the invocation is a move in the wrong direction. “Why do we want to do this?” he said. “Are we returning to the 1950s?”