Archive for Sunday, November 25, 2012

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

November 25, 2012


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.


just_another_bozo_on_this_bus 4 years 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.

Briseis 4 years ago

Proof? Or is this more hate from the Maharishi transcendental yoga groupies?

just_another_bozo_on_this_bus 4 years ago

So your response to my "hateful attack" is to denigrate some randomly imaginary group. Interesting.

just_another_bozo_on_this_bus 4 years ago

Read the zombie post again. My post has nothing to do with TM or its practitioners, but the reanimated clone has no compunction about attacking a group he sees as evil secular humanists merely for his inability to put forward a reasoned argument.

avarom 4 years ago

I'm just wondering.........when the State House is in prayer.......What the Agnostics and Atheists are doing during that time??? Singing???

avarom 4 years ago

Or texting their mistress..... ;-))

Maddy Griffin 4 years ago

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

just_another_bozo_on_this_bus 4 years ago

Point taken-- but, then again, I'm not a troll who has self-identified himself, who'll be disappeared, yet again, before the day is out. And my intent isn't merely to attempt to stifle his comments, as was yours towards me.

Cait McKnelly 4 years ago

He's taking advantage of the fact that it's Sunday and he can hang around awhile longer than usual.

Richard Heckler 4 years 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.

Liberty275 4 years 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.

just_another_bozo_on_this_bus 4 years ago

Strawman arguments that ignore that there is a difference between domestic and foreign policy.

And really, do you really think you'll be around long enough to have a discussion (not that you're capable even if you don't get disappeared again soon.)

Cait McKnelly 4 years ago

I don't take directions from zombies.

just_another_bozo_on_this_bus 4 years ago

But you've had more removed than I ever posted. What sort of award should that get?

weeslicket 4 years 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.).

Crazy_Larry 4 years ago

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

Briseis 4 years ago

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

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

yourworstnightmare 4 years 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.

deec 4 years ago

Or Hindu, Buddhist,Satanist,Wiccan, Native American spirituality, Voodoo or any of the myriad other non-Christian sects in the world.

FlintHawk 4 years ago

"When you pray, don't be like the hypocrites who love to pray publicly on street corners and in the synagogues where everyone can see them. I tell you the truth, that is all the reward they will ever get." (Matthew 6:5)

"Be careful not to do your 'acts of righteousness' before men, to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven. (Matthew 6:1)

verity 4 years ago

Didn't see your post before I posted.

Interesting how so many religionists don't seem to actually read their book. It also says something in the Bible about not swearing (an oath), yet people use the Bible to swear an oath on. (Yes, I ended a sentence with a preposition.)

verity 4 years ago

Thank you, tange, for enlightening me. I shall henceforth not feel inadequate for not being able to formulate sentences that don't in prepositions end up.

verity 4 years ago

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

Ron Holzwarth 4 years ago

Matthew Chapter 6, verse 5:

"And when you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, that they may be seen by men. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward."

patkindle 4 years ago

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

Crazy_Larry 4 years ago

Gosh, I would only be upset if the pledge contained reference to god. Keep the fairytale to yourself. Thank you very much. Have a great day!

deec 4 years ago

It's okay. You can go ahead and say the traditional pre-1954 version without the "under God" added. Dirty commies and all that.

verity 4 years ago

I always leave those words out. Didn't have them when I first learned it and if it was good enough for us then, it's good enough now. All these modern changes, kids today, good ol' days, back when I was young---have I left anything out?

Corey Williams 4 years ago

You forgot to say something about tradition.

patkindle 4 years 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

headdoctor 4 years ago

Is it really God hating or a real dislike for zealots of organized religion trying to force their man made doctrine on the whole population that include other religions.

Listening to the pseudo conservative venom sure make me want to change my mind. It reminds me of Andy at the end of the original Buffy the Vampire Slayer movie. "They had fangs. They were biting people. They had this look in their eyes — totally cold. Animal. I think they were Young Republicans."

UltimateGrownup 4 years 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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