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Citizens urge supervisors to resume an opening prayer at board meetings

Middlesex County residents participate in a prayer vigil outside the historic courthouse in Saluda prior to the October 1 Board of Supervisors meeting. (Photo by Ken Wilt)

by Larry Chowning

The public comment period at the Middlesex County Board of Supervisors meeting on October 1 was dominated by county residents concerned over the board’s recent decision to not open each board meeting with a prayer.

At the September meeting, board chair Carlton Revere announced that supervisors would no longer say a prayer at the beginning of meetings but instead would hold a “moment of silence” for military personnel who are fighting for our country. Middlesex County Attorney Mike Soberick had earlier advised Revere to make this decision for legal reasons.

Soberick recommended eliminating the opening prayer from meetings until the U.S. Supreme Court renders a decision on whether a public government body, such as a county board of supervisors, can say a prayer as part of its meeting’s agenda.

The Pittsylvania County Board of Supervisors was recently sued for saying a prayer in open meetings, and a judge ruled the county must pay $59,000 to the plaintiff. That suit was filed by the American Civil Liberties Union and the Pittsylvania County attorneys have asked the Fourth U.S. Supreme Court of Appeals to stay the ruling until the U.S. Supreme Court decides on a similar case involving the town of Greece, N.Y.

At the September meeting, Revere said the issue of saying a prayer to open board meetings surfaced when he received an email on August 2 from the Freedom From Religion Foundation’s staff attorney, Patrick C. Elliot, which indicated “a local complainant brought this matter to our attention.” The foundation is based in Madison, Wisconsin, and is a non-profit group that works as “an umbrella” for those who are free from religion and are committed to the principle of separation of state and church, its policy states. 

“It is our understanding that Middlesex County Board of Supervisors meetings open with prayers,” said Elliot in his email. “Government prayers exclude a significant portion of Americans from the democratic process, are of dubious legality, and are a repudiation of our secular history. The best solution is for the board to drop these prayers altogether.”

Public outcry
The decision to stop saying a prayer to open Middlesex supervisor meetings has led to considerable public outcry. Before the October 1 board meeting, about 20 people conducted a prayer vigil on the courthouse green in response to the decision.

During the public comment period at the October 1 meeting, Ken Wilt of Hardyville exceeded his three minutes of allotted speaking time, and the timer controlled by assistant county administrator Marcia Jones buzzed and buzzed for him to stop talking. Wilt, however, ignored the buzzer and continued until he was finished saying what he wanted to say.

“I’m here today to ask the board to re-consider the decision to suspend the invocation at the beginning of the meetings,” said Wilt. “I think the action was premature and the benefit of the doubt on the issue should go to the overwhelming majority of people in the community that support prayer, and also because the right is protected under the U.S. Constitution.

“I want to make it very clear that I and everyone else here, to my knowledge, supports the concept of separation of church and state. The opening invocation does not violate that principal,” Wilt continued. “I’ve been informed that the local person alleged to be offended by the prayer doesn’t even attend the meetings, so I’m not surprised that he and others are confused about the hearing and usefulness of such prayers, but I’d like to use this opportunity to clear up a couple of misconceptions. 

“First of all, I know you supervisors are not using any type of religious doctrine as a basis of any laws or ordinances that you are enacting,” Wilt continued. “I know you are not praying so that others in the community don’t have to. When you take part in the invocation you are exercising your personal rights under the Constitution and ask for wisdom as our representatives in dealing with the many issues that are thrown at you.”

Wilt said he was surprised how quickly supervisors tossed “aside basic constitutional rights and potentially those of future supervisors on a mere threat from some out-of-state group that sold you a bunch of totally false doctrine.

“We don’t want taxpayers on the hook for any legal costs, but why not reinstate prayer, then if someone really does have the guts to file a lawsuit it’s not likely to go to court before the Supreme Court decision on this issue is made,” Wilt said.

“Just a few days ago, I was listening to the radio broadcast of the U.S. House budget committee hearing and it had an invocation at the beginning, so what gives?” Wilt asked.

Read the rest of this story in this week’s Southside Sentinel at newstands throughout the county, or sign up here to receive a print and/or electronic pdf subscription.

posted 10.09.2013

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