WASHINGTON, N.C. (WNCT) — The Beaufort County Board of Commissioners is changing the way it handles prayers at its meetings after a national nonprofit alleged that the board’s preexisting prayer practice was unconstitutional.

The commissioners decided not to make a formal policy change in light of recent allegations made by Americans United for Separation of Church and State, but they are changing the way prayers are conducted at the start of their meetings. Instead of opening meetings by having a commissioner lead a Christian prayer, the commissioners are giving community members of all faiths an opportunity to offer a prayer relevant to their respective religions.

In a letter sent to each of the commissioners in January, Americans United staff attorney Ian Smith said the organization had received a complaint about the board opening its meetings with a commissioner-led sectarian prayer, with the chairman of the board routinely asking the audience to stand for the prayer.

Smith called the practice “blatantly unconstitutional,” claiming it violated the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.

“The Board of Commissioners exists to represent all citizens of Beaufort County, regardless of faith or belief,” Smith wrote in the letter. “The practice of county officials composing and reciting official prayers sends the message that nonbelievers and adherents of faiths that do not wish to participate in the Board’s prayers are not accepted members of the community and pressuring the audience to stand for the prayer coerces them to participate in the Board’s religious activities.”

You can read the full letter below.

The letter is dated Jan. 19. Smith asked the board to provide within 30 days a response detailing how they’d handle the alleged violation. Smith told WNCT that the organization would decide how to proceed based on the board’s actions.

An immediate change to the board’s prayer practice was evident during its February meeting. Cris Noble, a minister at Trinity Methodist Church in Belhaven, led the prayer at the start of the meeting Monday. That practice of having religious leaders and other community members lead prayers is how the board will proceed moving forward.

Community members who are interested in leading a prayer at a Beaufort County Commissioners meeting need to contact Katie Mosher, clerk to the board.

Before deciding on how to move forward, board members spoke about Americans United’s allegations and their thoughts on prayer during meetings.

Vice Chairman Jerry Langley said the people taking issue with the prayer practice should be showing up to the meetings and presenting those concerns directly to the board.

“I just think it’s wrong to throw rocks and then hide your hand,” Langley said.

“… It just bothers me that people who have absolutely, positively nothing to do with Beaufort County is now trying to tell us how we should conduct ourselves,” Langley added.

Chairman Frankie Waters said he read the letter several times and found that the organization didn’t take issue with the general idea of prayer happening at board meetings, but rather that elected officials were leading the prayers. He said he was against replacing the prayer with a moment of silence — one of the alternatives Smith proposed in his letter — and said he supported the idea of having religious leaders come in to lead the prayers.

Commissioner Stan Deatherage also spoke against implementing the moment of silence, calling it “not Christian,” and talked about opening the door for “spiritual people” — as in not just certain religions or denominations — to lead the prayers.

“I think what has happened over the years, there’s been a misunderstanding of the Constitution, a misunderstanding of the so-called separation of church and state,” Deatherage said. “And so therefore that has like a snowball rolling down a hill metastasized to a point that some of these leftist lawyers think they have a foothold to change the way we organize our communities and govern those communities.

“This is a slippery slope for us, not for them,” Deatherage added. “All they have to do is attack us and stay after us. And if we cower, we fail as leaders.”

Waters suggested that a short prayer policy be written. Commissioner Hood Richardson followed that up by suggesting the board do nothing.

“If we start putting stuff into writing we’re taking risks,” Richardson said. “… I just think that we’ve changed the way we do things, and I don’t think that we need to justify it to anybody. If anybody wants to show up and see what we do, they can.”

The board agreed to continue handling prayers at meetings the same way they did Monday, with a community member of any faith leading the prayer instead of a commissioner.