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Opening prayer put on hold at board meetings

by Larry Chowning

The first item on the agenda for the August 6 meeting of the Middlesex County Board of Supervisors was “Invocation and Pledge of Allegiance.” It has read this way for generations of Middlesex boards.

However, things changed at the September 3 board meeting. The agenda read: “Moment of Silence and Pledge of Allegiance,” which eliminated open prayer by county officials at the meeting.

For years, supervisors have started each meeting with a prayer, delivered by board members on a rotating basis. At the September meeting, board chairman Carlton Revere requested that there be a “moment of silence” for the country’s military people abroad. There was no mention of the change in the “invocation policy” until several citizens spoke during the public comment period, and voiced support to continue the tradition of having an open prayer to open board meetings.

Much later in the meeting, Revere made a statement concerning the change in policy.

Revere said the issue of saying a prayer to open the meeting 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.”

Revere stated that the Pittsylvania County Board of Supervisors was recently sued and a federal judge issued an injunction in March barring the board from opening meetings with prayers associated with any one religion. The judge demanded that the county pay $59,000 to the plaintiff. That suit was filed by the American Civil Liberties Union on behalf of Barbara Hudson. Pittsylvania County attorneys have asked the Fourth U.S. Supreme Court of Appeals to stay the ruling until the U.S. Supreme Court decides a similar case involving the town of Greece, New York.

“That’s the current state of affairs, but personally it does not please me at all but I feel it’s in the best interest of the county,” Revere said. “I apologize for not addressing it at the beginning of the meeting. I shudder to think what my family will do to me.”

On Monday, September 9, assistant county administrator Marcia Jones said the county requested legal advice on the prayer issue and that Middlesex County Attorney Mike Soberick advised supervisors to stop saying a prayer at their meetings.

Also on Monday, county administrator Matt Walker said his office will be watching for the decision of the U.S. Supreme Court and he is hopeful that the prayer can be resumed at the board meetings.

During the public comment period at the September 3 meeting, Dan Downs of Hartfield asked the board if they had forgotten that this country is “one nation under God,” and that citizens are bound to “swear to tell the truth, the whole truth, so help me God.”

Downs continued, “I never thought that to say a prayer in this country would be offensive to anyone. The very foundation of America is God and religion, and it’s wrong not to be able to pray anywhere we want.”

Lynda Muller of Kilmer’s Point asked, “Where the heck did this come from when prayer is so offensive that non-Christians can prevent us from our rights of free speech—to pray?”

The Freedom From Religion Foundation email further stated, “Prayer at government meetings is unnecessary, inappropriate and divisive. Board members are free to pray privately or to worship on their own time in their own way. They do not need to worship on taxpayers’ time. The board ought not to lend its power and prestige to religion, amounting to a governmental endorsement that excludes 19% of the American population that is nonreligious. Younger voters are the least religious population in the country: 1 in 3 Americans aged 18-29 are not religious.”

posted 09.11.2013

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