Several local leaders have found themselves juggling positions in both government and religious sectors, highlighting the current debate over the separation of church and state.
“I don’t think we should force our beliefs on others, but we shouldn’t be ashamed of them either,” said Marcus Dunn, a former Anniston City Council member and current senior pastor at Kingdom Place Ministries.
The pastor said he compartmentalized the leadership roles by abstaining during votes on matters he opposed on a religious basis, particularly commercial alcohol licenses.
“It was very easy for me,” he said. “While I was there as a councilman, I served as a councilman, not a pastor.”
Dunn, however, added that he did not oppose the U.S. Supreme Court’s recent ruling to allow sectarian prayer, or prayer from a single religion, at government meetings. He said the Christian prayer conducted before public meetings in Anniston helps set a peaceful atmosphere in city hall.
“I understand that,” said Cheyne Smith, founder of the Calhoun County Secular Society. “I suppose I don’t have a problem with it, as long as the laws that our country is founded on are still followed.”
The crux of the issue is not prayer itself, a longtime tradition in public meetings, but the type of prayer, said Gordon Harvey, the department head of history and foreign languages at Jacksonville State University. As more people of different faiths and backgrounds are added to the country’s “melting pot,” tolerance for single-religion policies lessens, he said.
“It’s a byproduct of population that is more diverse than it’s ever been in American history,” he said.
Balancing moral and legal decisions
Alberta McCrory, mayor of Hobson City and associate pastor at Gaines Chapel AME Church, also divides her time between official and religious responsibilities.
“I would say that there is an overlap in some areas,” McCrory remarked. “What I practice in the church I should also practice in my public role.”
She stated that, in her experience, morally right decisions and legally right decisions are usually not that far apart, such as the fair treatment of others.
McCrory agreed with the Supreme Court’s ruling on prayer, but said she felt it was important to be inclusive of those in attendance.
“I try to do what’s legally right,” she said. “My position is that you can offer public prayer in a public place, and those people who don’t want to pray don’t have to.”
Truman Norred, pastor of Blue Mountain Baptist Church and a Jacksonville City Council member, said that he, like Dunn, balances his leadership roles by abstaining from votes involving commercial alcohol licenses.
“I abstain because they have a legal right to sell alcohol,” Norred said. “But my own convictions won’t allow me to vote yes.”
He also does not oppose prayer before government meetings in Jacksonville, which Norred called an effort to appeal to a higher power for guidance.
Prayers from other religions welcome
According to all three pastors, no complaints about the presence of prayer at city meetings have been made. Both Norred and McCrory welcomed requests for prayers from other religions, but said that none have ever been submitted.
Smith said that secularists flying under the radar in Anniston would likely not come forward with complaints.
“A lot of people are afraid or not comfortable with letting people know that they don’t believe, because there’s a stigma attached to it,” he said.
Smith said he created the secular society’s Facebook page as an educational platform to combat misconceptions about secular views like atheism and agnosticism.
While anyone can join the organization’s public Facebook page, members use a private, invitation-only, page. He said the privacy appeals to about 170 residents who secretly identify as secularists and fear the possibility of losing their jobs or being ostracized by their families and friends.
Smith added that, personally, he does not disagree with religious leaders holding public positions.
“I don’t see a problem with it, as long as they know what they can and can’t do in their office,” he said. “When you’re a public official, you’re elected to serve all the people.”