City Attorney Denies Telling Mayor, City Council To Halt Prayers Before Council Meetings

Sep 19, 2017

Updated at 5:56 p.m.

Charlotte City Attorney Bob Hagemann says he never advised the mayor or city council to halt the practice of praying before council meetings. That's despite the mayor saying the decision was made on the "expert advice of our attorney."

In an interview with WFAE, Hagemann clarified that while he told city council that not praying before meetings is "100 percent constitutionally defensible," he did not expressly recommend that council cease the practice.

Credit Nick de la Canal / WFAE

"There may have been some confusion between the mayor and me, and I apologize for that," Hagemann said.

Previously, Hagemann had briefed Roberts and the rest of city council about a court case in Rowan County where a panel of judges found county commissioners violated the Constitution by holding explicitly sectarian prayers that were nearly always Christian while encouraging public participation. 

"Charlotte's practice has some similarities to Rowan County," Hagemann told WFAE, "but not enough for me to conclude that our practices are unconstitutional."

Reached by phone Tuesday, Roberts said it was her recollection that Hagemann had recommended the city stop the practice, but in hindsight, she was unsure.

"I don't remember his exact words, but something like, 'It might be wise just to avoid having an invocation," Roberts said, "I can't remember if he said or someone said it and he nodded. Again, my recollection is that it was his advice."

It's unclear how many city council members fully supported the decision, which was not put to a formal vote. Both Hagemann and Council Member Julie Eiselt said the decision was made quickly, and without much debate among council members.

"The conversation was extremely short, and there seemed to be some consensus, but nothing expressed," Hagemann said.

In an email sent to council members Tuesday morning, Roberts wrote that there was "unanimous head nods and agreement" at the meeting, but that since the meeting, she had become aware of some council members who now objected to the decision.

Republican Kenny Smith, in particular, expressed misgivings in an interview with WBT. Smith is running for mayor.

In light of the confusion, Roberts says she is referring the issue to the Governance and Accountability Committee, which is headed by Smith, for further discussion and public input.

In the meantime, Roberts says city council meetings will proceed without opening prayers.

Correction 4:11 p.m. - This article has been updated to clarify comments Hagemann made regarding confusion between himself and Mayor Roberts.