At public meetings, fights over prayer drag on

By Jessica Gresko

Associated Press

Published: Wednesday, Nov. 21 2012 4:20 p.m. MST

Courts around the country don't agree on what's acceptable or haven't considered the issue. In 1983 the U.S. Supreme Court approved prayer before legislative meetings, saying prayers don't violate the First Amendment's so-called Establishment Clause, which prohibits the government from favoring one religion over another. But the case didn't set any boundaries on those prayers, and today courts disagree on what is permissible.

For example, one court ruling from 2011 says that prayers before legislative meetings in Maryland, North Carolina, South Carolina, Virginia and West Virginia should be nondenominational or non-sectarian. That means the prayer leader can use general words like "God" and "our creator" but isn't supposed to use words like "Jesus" ''Christ" and "Allah" that are specific to a single religion.

The law is different in courts in Florida, Georgia and Alabama: In 2008 a federal court of appeals overseeing those states upheld the prayer practice of Georgia's Cobb County, which had invited a rotating group of clergy members to give prayers before its meetings. The prayers were predominantly Christian and often included references to Jesus.

Towns that get complaints, meanwhile, have responded differently. Some have made changes, some willingly and others with misgivings. Other towns have dug in to defend their traditions.

Citizens in Lancaster, Calif., for example, voted overwhelmingly in 2010 to continue their prayers despite the threat of a lawsuit. Mayor R. Rex Parris says the city of 158,000 has already likely spent about $500,000 defending the practice, and he expects to spend more before the case is over. He said the issue is worth it because it has brought the town together.

"Once the people realize you are standing up for more than fixing potholes, that sense of community really starts to coalesce," he said.

Other towns have gone the opposite route, stopping prayer altogether when challenged. Henrico County, Va., stopped prayers recently after lawmakers reviewed recent court decisions and determined it would be too difficult to police the content of prayers.

Still other towns have modified their practices rather than give them up entirely. Earlier this year Kannapolis, N.C., population 45,000, stopped allowing council members to deliver prayers before meetings after getting a Freedom From Religion Foundation letter. Now members pray silently. Council members didn't want to change the way they prayed, but they also didn't want to spend thousands of dollars fighting a losing lawsuit.

In Sussex County, Del., lawmakers also agreed to alter their practice this year. For decades the County Council president opened meetings by leading the Lord's Prayer, which appears in the New Testament. Michael H. Vincent, the current president, said it makes him feel better to begin by "asking a higher power for some guidance in our decision making process."

Now, however, after a lawsuit, the council has settled on beginning with the 23rd Psalm, a prayer that appears in the Old Testament and is therefore significant to both Christians and Jews.

One of the Delaware residents who challenged the prayer, retired Lutheran minister John Steinbruck, says he's satisfied with the resolution, though he would have preferred a moment of silence. Though the fight in Sussex County is over for now, others are just starting.

"I think that step by step by step, maybe every community is going to have to deal with this," Steinbruck said.

Follow Jessica Gresko at http://twitter.com/jessicagresko

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