December 4, 2020
A Hillbilly Muslim in Carrol Mitchem’s Court – A Struggle for Religious Liberty Lincoln County set the stage for a major push against religious freedom.

A Hillbilly Muslim in Carrol Mitchem’s Court – A Struggle for Religious Liberty

In May of 2015, Lincoln County Chairman Carrol Mitchem dealt the first blow in a fight for religious liberty as he spewed unprovoked hate against Muslims. Muslim American’s editor, a native of Lincoln County, stepped up to defend religious liberty for everyone.  Here is his account.

By Duston Barto

Though it may be hard to fathom, I don’t go picking fights. I leave hornets nests alone and even feed raccoons and opossums on purpose. Basically, I try to be passive and go with the flow. I don’t compromise or hide my religion, but I don’t see the need to shove it in front of everyone. That being said, I will actively stand up for the rights of Muslims when they are violated or threatened, and I will especially speak out when an elected official makes bigoted comments about Islam and Muslims.

Duston Barto, an advocate for religious liberty and civil rights, pictured here with long beard and brown kufi cap.
Duston Barto, Editor of Muslim American, is an advocate for universal rights including rights of religious liberty, civil rights in society and freedom from oppression for all people.

The first week of May this year found me in such a situation. As a born-and raised resident of Lincoln County, I had to speak out when County Commission Chairman Carrol Mitchem spewed hateful words against Muslims to a local journalist. It all started when local Rowan County commission came under legal pressure for consistently praying “in Jesus name” and referring to Jesus (AS) as “Savior” while preventing other faith traditions from providing an invocation. Lincoln Times-News reporter Adam Lawson merely asked Chairman Mitchem about his thoughts.

“A Muslim? He comes in here to say a prayer, I’m going to tell him to leave,” Mitchem said. “I have no use for (those) people. They don’t need to be here praying to Allah or whoever the hell they pray to. I’m not going to listen to (a) Muslim pray.” He continued by explaining that he didn’t care for “changing rules on the way the United States was founded, Constitution was founded,” Mitchem said. “I don’t need no Arab or Muslim or whoever telling me what to do or us here in the county what to do about praying. If they don’t like it, stay the hell away.” He finally punctuated, “I’m very adamant about that. I’ll do everything in my power to make sure that happens. We’re going to pray as usual.”

As usual, for Lincoln County Commissioners, meant praying an exclusively Christian prayer delivered by local preachers or, when they are not available, by commissioners themselves. While the ACLU and Americans United threatened lawsuits, I penned a simple letter to local media outlets and to the commissioners themselves entitled, “No, we Muslims won’t ‘Stay the hell away,” and in doing so, entered a much larger stage than I anticipated.

My goal was simple: to express disgust at the fact that a local elected official is saying hateful things about the citizenry he is supposed to govern and to include Islam in the dialog of local religion. Lincoln County is not a huge Muslim American population center, but I personally know of over a dozen Muslim families in the county, so it stands to reason that there are between 50-100 Muslims in the county. We are spread out, and as such we travel to neighboring cities for worship in established Masajid. On May 18th, 2015, I stood before the county commission, and I told them that to remove the presence of faith, the core of morality, from the presence of government would be a tragedy. I also proposed an interfaith prayer which did not name God and did not make reference to names which represent only one faith, so that our community could be united in thought and in governance. I further stated that I didn’t blame Chairman Mitchem for his ignorance of what we Muslims believed, that I blamed myself and others for not reaching out to tell him. In order to set that straight, I offered him a Qur’an and some brochures from the Charlotte-based American Islamic Outreach Foundation. He refused to take those items from me and directed me to leave them with the secretary of the commission.

At the close of the May 18th meeting, the commission adopted a policy which would allow any appointed leader of any faith group to come and give an invocation. Problem was, there is no mosque, synagogue or temple within Lincoln County, so once again non- Christians were excluded.

This led to a brainstorming session with others who represent minority religions, and we decided collectively to form the Foothills Interfaith Assembly in order to make sure that minority religions were no longer excluded from public dialog. While the trigger point to join together was the exclusion from county invocations, Foothills Interfaith Assembly quickly decided that we needed to be ready to defend the liberties of individuals in many parts of the rural areas surrounding Lincoln County. We framed the mission statement so that it matched the declaration of the commission and filed our petition to make invocation as soon as the opportunity came available, and we had met enough times to qualify for “regular and periodic meetings within the county.”

On August 3rd, 2015, I went to give the invocation as the members of our group unanimously voted that since Muslims were the target of Mitchem’s hate, Muslims should be the first represented in interfaith dialog. The invocation was a clear English translation of Surah Al Fatihah along with a du’a for guidance in governance from God to the leadership of our county.

Religious liberty upheld. Concept photo shows a judge's gavel in front of a blurred American flag.
The Supreme Court has upheld religious liberty countless times. Most recently and relevant to the Lincoln County episode is the ruling that prayers held at county meetings must be fully inclusive and not refer to a specific deity unless all religions in the community are welcome to present.

During the invocation there were many shouts of “Amen” from the assembled which brought back memories of tent revivals from my childhood. I was strengthened in my resolve because of the presence of many members of Masjid Ash-Shaheed who had come out in support of defending Muslim rights for equality in governance. Brothers made the hour-long drive from their homes in Charlotte to stand by me and stare down bigotry.

Chairman Mitchem, however, had chosen to turn his chair around and leave the room a few minutes before my invocation was to begin. This action prompted Commissioner Patton to publicly chastise him before the end of the meeting and denounce the disrespectful way he conducted himself. This argument between the commissioners resulted in the county commission deciding to remove prayer entirely from the commission meetings. This was not my intended goal; but, there are ripple effects to everything that has happened. As of this writing, if you Google “Lincoln County Prayer,” there are over 750,000 results. If each page was read by only 20 people then over 15 Million people would be reading that Muslims will not be silent as our rights are taken away. That’s not even counting the radio and television interviews that I’ve done over the past few months.

We must be prepared to stand up and speak out in order to defend our liberties and stop any effort that will force one view as superior while silencing others. As Muslim Americans we must defend the rights for all citizens to be able to be represented equally by our elected officials as defending liberty for others results in defended liberty for us. It does not compromise Islam in any way to demand for justice and equality in governance. I encourage everyone to be educated in the liberties that should be secured. Pay attention to your elected officials, especially at the local level, to ensure that they are not espousing ideologies that would lead to stripping your rights away.

Our American ancestors fought for liberation from the oppression of England, liberation from the oppression of slavery and for civil rights legislation to ensure that all Americans are treated equally by government without regard to race or religion. Do not be afraid to stand up for those liberties.

“The constitutional freedom of religion [is] the most inalienable and sacred of all human rights.”– Thomas Jefferson, 1822

Full Text of the invocation follows:

Chapter 1:  The Beginning/The Opening

In the Name of the One God of all, the Merciful Benefactor, the Merciful Redeemer. All Praise belongs to God, Creator, Cherisher and Sustainer of all the Worlds and all systems of knowledge! The All-Merciful, the All-Compassionate, Sovereign Master of the Day of Judgment! We worship You. We call upon you for help and guidance. Show us the Straight Way. Guide us to the way of those who have earned Your grace. Not the path of those who have earned Your anger. Do not let us be among the misguided.

Ameen

We call upon you, oh Lord of all that exists, to guide those present to righteousness. We ask for a measure of Your infinite wisdom to be granted to those in leadership positions, that You may guide them to govern in a righteous manner and that You may guard their hearts and minds from any decisions which would restrict the liberty that You have endowed all of Your creation with.  We ask that governance be done with mercy and with equity. Oh Master of the Day of Judgment, we ask that your divine sense of justice be found in the decisions made in this room and that all people will be free to seek their path in this world.  May their path be in your guidance.
Furthermore, oh Creator of all that exists, the seen and the unseen and the giver of life to all of mankind, all animals and everything within the infinite worlds that you reign over, we ask that you allow this moment of history to be a bright point of guidance.  We ask, oh Lord, that you allow this moment to pierce the darkness of bigotry and hate no matter where it may exist in this world and that people will look to Lincoln County as a point of hope, where many faiths and philosophies coexist in peace, justice and equity.  We know, oh Lord, that all freedom and liberty we have comes from you and that it is as infinite as your immeasurable mercy.  We know that sharing this freedom and liberty costs us nothing as it comes from your infinite wellspring.  Help us to share liberty with all of mankind with the knowledge that freedom for others does not diminish freedom for ourselves.
We ask all things with your Divine name as you are the Most Merciful Benefactor and the Most Merciful Redeemer.

AMEEN!

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