A local pastor says he never expected one little sentence to cause such a big controversy.
We first told you last week that Henrico County decided to eliminate all prayers before public meetings. The move followed a pastor's invocation that some say went too far. Now, for the first time, we're hearing from the man who delivered that prayer.
"But when I walked in, it was certainly...there were a lot of people there. You could tell there was a hum in the air," said Associate Pastor Tommy Knighten of the Staples Mill Road Baptist Church.
It was June 12. There was a packed house, and Pastor Knighten gave the invocation. Six little words would lead to big change.
"In Christ's name I pray, Amen," Knighten said in closing his prayer that evening.
Knighten would've used those words no matter who was in the seats, but on that night it happened to be more than a hundred Muslims who came to support the construction of a new mosque. With religious sensitivities high, the very next day somebody e-mailed a complaint, saying that prayer created "an atmosphere of hostility," though Knighten says it was barely apparent at the time.
"I didn't sense any consternation at the time," he said in an interview Monday.
The complaint cited a 2011 federal court ruling that called sectarian prayer before public boards a violation of the separation between church and state. Fearing a potential lawsuit, Henrico decided to immediately drop all invocations, a staple of public board meetings for at least the past 25 years.
"And so I knew they would have very limited options. And I think they made the one that was probably simplest," Knighten said.
Since then, Knighten says he's felt little public pressure, and there's been no request to apologize.
"It's forced me to think further along, what I think about the role of prayer in government, but certainly my approach is always going to be to not be ashamed of the gospel and not ashamed that we pray in the name of Christ," Knighten said.
Pastor Knighten said he would give an invocation again if called upon, but before doing so he would make sure the governments involved knew what he was going to say.
He may never get that call, though. Other jurisdictions in the region will still do invocations, but their policies strictly call for a non-sectarian prayer.
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