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Updated: Spring Lake to discuss removing prayer from town meetings

The Board of Aldermen will also talk about restoring pay for furloughed employees.


Editor's note: This story has been updated to include comments from Mayor Kia Anthony.

SPRING LAKE - Removing the opening prayer from town meetings and restoring pay for furloughed employees are up for discussion at the Spring Lake Board of Aldermen meeting Monday.

The board meets at 6 p.m. in the Grady Howard conference room at town hall.

The agenda includes an item to discuss the proposed removal of the “invocation and Pledge of Allegiance” from the agenda.

Mayor Kia Anthony raised the idea of removing the invocation from board meetings during a board training session on Dec. 17.

“One thing that I have been thinking about is the invocation because not everyone in the community is Christian, we need to open that up or completely remove it,’’ Anthony said at the training session in December. “I say this because, first and foremost, not everyone is a Christian and not everyone wants to pray to the Christian God.”

Anthony said in December that inclusivity was her goal and that a danger short of removing the invocation entirely is that Satanism could be recognized as a religion. She said the military recognizes it as a religion and that would open the town up to also recognize it in order to be inclusive.

Alderman Raul Palacios said Friday that he had heard from numerous residents since that discussion took place in December and was not in favor of the prayer being removed.

“I’m not in favor of prayer and the Pledge of Allegiance being removed from the meetings,’’ Palacios said. “We had (a) discussion in December, but I wasn’t sure it would come back up since there did not seem to be advocation of it going forward. I’m surprised this is on the agenda.”

The discussion to amend the proposed agenda outline is being presented by Town Clerk Melissa Pereira.

Anthony could not be reached for comment over the weekend.

On Monday, Anthony said the agenda item has nothing to do with the discussion that took place during the December training session.

She said at that meeting she was speaking in terms of being inclusive for all people.

She said the way the invocation is currently done, the town is in violation of the Constitution.

“We are in direct violation of the U.S. Constitution,” said Anthony, citing an article from the UNC School of Government in 2017.

The article said a state court identified four practices that, when combined, violate the Constitution. They were: only board members deliver the prayers; the board members are all of the same religion; there is no opportunity for other faiths to be represented; and the board meetings occur in the intimate setting of a local government meeting.

It also cites ways a town could adopt policies regarding prayer.

“When new information is brought to me, I have the legal, moral and ethical obligation to bring it up,” Anthony said Monday.

 Alderman Marvin Lackman said he would like further insight from the attorney, but he also said he did not see the idea going forward from the past discussion. He said he does not want to see the prayer removed from meetings.

“As a retired soldier, I am against removing the invocation and the Pledge of Allegiance, period,” Lackman said.

Alderwoman Sona Cooper said if an invocation was on the agenda, it could be addressed as a nonsectarian prayer to cover the town as a government entity.

The board also is expected to discuss lifting the furloughs that were part of the budget cuts to help address the town deficit. The 5% furlough, which went into effect in July, reduced pay for all general fund employees and the Board of Aldermen. It also reduced staff hours, with the exception of police and fire, from a 40-hour workweek to a 38-hour workweek, closing Town Hall on Fridays to walk-in traffic.

“Our employees are working short-staffed and have worked hard during the pandemic,’’ Cooper said. “I’d like to see their salaries restored. There should be money in our general fund from lapsed salaries.”

She was referring to town positions that had remained vacant over the last several months.

Interim Town Manager Samantha Wullenwaber said she had not run a financial analysis to see how doable it would be. The town is working to rebuild its fund balance, she said.

Palacios agreed with Cooper that he would also like to see the furloughs lifted. But he said without seeing the numbers, it would be hard for him to make a determination.

“Can we afford it? I’m sensitive to the work of our town employees, but I also know even though that 5% might not be much in individual paychecks, it might mean a lot overall to our town bank account,’’ Palacios said. “I’d also like to see town hall open five days a week and that needs to be a part of the discussion.”

A closed session citing personnel is also on the agenda.

Jami McLaughlin covers Spring Lake for CityView TODAY. She can be reached at jmclaughlin@cityviewnc.com. Have a news tip? Email news@CityViewTODAY.com.

Spring Lake, Board of Aldermen, prayer, Pledge of Allegiance, furloughs