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Archive for Sunday, November 25, 2012

At public meetings across the U.S., fights over prayer drag on

November 25, 2012

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WASHINGTON — It happens every week at meetings in towns, counties and cities nationwide. A lawmaker or religious leader leads a prayer before officials begin the business of zoning changes, contract approvals and trash pickup.

But citizens are increasingly taking issue with these prayers, some of which have been in place for decades. At least five lawsuits around the country — in California, Florida, Missouri, New York, and Tennessee — are actively challenging pre-meeting prayers.

Lawyers on both sides say there is a new complaint almost weekly, though they don’t always end up in court. When they do, it seems even courts are struggling to draw the line over the acceptable ways to pray. Some lawyers and lawmakers believe it’s only a matter of time before the Supreme Court will weigh in to resolve the differences. The court has previously declined to take on the issue, but lawyers in a New York case plan to ask the justices in December to revisit it. And even if the court doesn’t take that particular case, it could accept a similar one in the future.

Lawmakers who defend the prayers cite the nation’s founders and say they’re following a long tradition of prayer before public meetings. They say residents don’t have to participate and having a prayer adds solemnity to meetings and serves as a reminder to do good work.

“It’s a reassuring feeling,” said Lakeland, Fla., Mayor Gow Fields of his city’s prayers, which have led to an ongoing legal clash with an atheist group. The City Commission’s meeting agenda now begins with a disclaimer that any prayer offered before the meeting is the “voluntary offering of a private citizen” and not being endorsed by the commission.

Citizens and groups made uncomfortable by the prayers say they’re fighting an inappropriate mix of religion and politics.

“It makes me feel unwelcome,” said Tommy Coleman, the son of a church pianist and a self-described secular humanist who is challenging pre-meeting prayers in Tennessee’s Hamilton County.

Coleman, 28, and Brandon Jones, 25, are urging the county to adopt a moment of silence at its weekly meeting rather than beginning with a prayer.

A number of groups are willing to help with complaints like those filed by Coleman and Jones. Annie Laurie Gaylor, the co-founder of the Wisconsin-based Freedom From Religion Foundation, says complaints about the prayers are among the most frequent her organization gets.

Gaylor’s organization sends out letters when it is contacted by citizens, urging lawmakers to discontinue the prayers. Other groups including the American Civil Liberties Union and the Washington-based Americans United for Separation of Church and State send out similar letters.

Ian Smith, a lawyer with Americans United for Separation of Church and State, says his organization has gotten more complaints in recent years. That could be because people are more comfortable standing up for themselves or more aware of their options, but Smith also said groups on the right have also promoted the adoption of prayers.

Brett Harvey, a lawyer at the Arizona-based Alliance Defending Freedom, a Christian group that often helps towns defend their practices, sees it the other way. He says liberal groups have made a coordinated attempt to bully local governments into abandoning prayers, resulting in more cases.

“It’s really kind of a campaign of fear and disinformation,” Harvey said.

Harvey has talked with hundreds of towns about their policies and been involved in about 10 court cases in the past three years. Right now, his advice differs for different parts of the country because the law is in flux.

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.

Comments

UltimateGrownup 1 year, 4 months ago

This article is fake and should never have been printed. Here is the text of the First Amendment: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances." Read it and reread it. It would be 100% constitution for Florida to declare itself to be a Methodist state, for Maryland to declare itself a Catholic state, and for New York to declare itself a Jewish state. Nowhere in the article does it state that the federal Congress has passed any new laws respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof, so there is no question of any of these activities being unconstitutional. End of debate.

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patkindle 1 year, 4 months ago

A lot of the older folks remember when respect to god and country was the norm. Today, they are out numbered by usa and god haters. It is time they accept they They are no ;longer the majority and step aside, perhaps to the back of the bus They are not the norm, and need to realize they are now the second class citizens

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tange 1 year, 4 months ago

Here's the King James Version extended...

Matthew
5 And when thou prayest, thou shalt not be as the hypocrites are: for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and in the corners of the streets, that they may be seen of men. Verily I say unto you, They have their reward.
6 But thou, when thou prayest, enter into thy closet, and when thou hast shut thy door, pray to thy Father which is in secret; and thy Father which seeth in secret shall reward thee openly.
7 But when ye pray, use not vain repetitions, as the heathen do: for they think that they shall be heard for their much speaking.
8 Be not ye therefore like unto them: for your Father knoweth what things ye have need of, before ye ask him.
9 After this manner therefore pray ye: Our Father which art in heaven, Hallowed be thy name....

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patkindle 1 year, 4 months ago

Gosh, if they warmed up the meeting with a pledge of allegiance Before the prayer, you folks would really be upset

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verity 1 year, 4 months ago

I believe Jesus said something about praying in public---and it wasn't positive.

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tange 1 year, 4 months ago

Verily I say unto you, They have their reward.

_

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yourworstnightmare 1 year, 4 months ago

Religious hegemony masquerading as religious freedom.

I wonder how these folks would feel if the prayers were islamic with reference to allah?

My guess is that then they would change their definition of religious freedom to mean the freedom from being subjected to an islamic prayer.

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Briseis 1 year, 4 months ago

When will the public meetings turn to an "Arab Spring" event in America?

http://english.alarabiya.net/articles/2012/11/25/251637.html

Credit Hillary Clinton, Obama, and Susan Rice for "Arab Spring" in Egypt.

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Crazy_Larry 1 year, 4 months ago

""It’s really kind of a campaign of fear and disinformation,” Harvey said."" Ironic, that's exactly how I describe religion.

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weeslicket 1 year, 4 months ago

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. examples of this in practice: 1. 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. 2. Sussex County, Del., ... For decades the County Council president opened meetings by leading the Lord’s Prayer, which appears in the New Testament. 3. Now, ... the council has settled on beginning with the 23rd Psalm, a prayer that appears in the Old Testament (that's the bible again) and is therefore significant to both Christians and Jews. 4. i didn't read anything about Maharishi transcendental yoga prayers or msm (whatever that is). did a quick internet search, and only found examples of public christian prayer. 5. anyone else seeing a pattern here? BONUS EXAMPLES: 6. "God" = the christian god. i don't know of anyone who mistakes it for Allah or Buddah or FSM. 7. "Creator" is deism (aka: Invisible Hand, Great Architect, Nature, etc.).

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ing_yo 1 year, 4 months ago

"Trying to out someone, bozo?" -informed

Bozo is busy on the forum, based on his average posting history of 11.28 posts per day (2644 days)----29,813 posts total. At this rate, he may set forum history in about 16 days. Will LJW give him some type of award?

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ing_yo 1 year, 4 months ago

Funny that the crowd here in the US who want zero religion in statehouses across America get their panties in a wad at the thought of us meddling in Arab nation's affairs, almost all of which are run by murderous tyrannical religious zealots at the top levels. What gives with that rationale? Discuss.

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Liberty275 1 year, 4 months ago

I'm less concerned about the prayer stuff and more disheartened by the American electorate that keeps voting for people that live their lives according to a superstition. You'd think we would be over that by now.

But we aren't and I have no interest in violating the constitutional right to practice religion. If a prayer is traditionally spoken before a meeting, I'll sit through it quietly thinking how dumb it is. However, after a public servant prays for whatever it is he wants from his god this time, I expect him to conduct all government business with absolute disregard for any sort of religion.

" new push from the secular crowd upon the second term of Obama. This of course, will be fueled by the msm "

I don't need Obama or the media to tell me fairy tales have no place in government in America.

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Richard Heckler 1 year, 4 months ago

How has acknowledging God stopped corruption and lying in our political establishments?

It hasn't. Therefore the conclusion becomes the political establishments and the participants are offending God.

In essence it is all a game of pretend.

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ing_yo 1 year, 4 months ago

It has been discussed and is to be expected to see a new push from the secular crowd upon the second term of Obama. This of course, will be fueled by the msm.

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grammaddy 1 year, 4 months ago

Keep your religion out of my government. State, local, federal, it doesn't matter.

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Jackie Jackasserson 1 year, 4 months ago

When you create a sense of community for one group of people in your community, you disenfranchise the other more often than not around issues like these. Don't forget the flip side.

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just_another_bozo_on_this_bus 1 year, 4 months ago

When you can't find a rational basis for an agenda of greed and discrimination, the only option left is to attempt to invoke the will an imaginary being to give that agenda a veneer of legitimacy.

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