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Jerry Davich: What role should prayer play at a government meeting?

Jerry Davich.

Jerry Davich.

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Updated: August 20, 2013 11:08PM



Should government meetings include a religious prayer?

Northwest Indiana public officials are divided on this deeply embedded issue, and I suspect region residents are, too.

Hammond Mayor Thomas McDermott believes it is “not appropriate” to begin government meetings with prayers of any kind.

“I think the Hammond Council should cease this practice before Hammond gets sued for violating the First Amendment,” McDermott wrote on his Facebook page earlier this month, one day after the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to finally address the controversial issue.

“Before each Hammond City Council meeting, a prayer is said aloud prior to the commencement of business,” McDermott told me Monday. “Sometimes, the prayer is directly to ‘our Lord’ and sometimes Jesus’ name is mentioned directly.”

“I am trying to avoid Hammond getting sued for violation of the First Amendment’s Establishment’s clause, which is similar to the case of Greece, N.Y.,” he added.

He is referring to the pending court case in the town of Greece, N.Y. which focuses on the first 10 words of the First Amendment, ratified in 1791: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion.”

The practice of offering prayers of some kind at government meetings, and also in Congress and state legislature, has been taking place ever since, for more than two centuries. But two New York women — Susan Galloway, who is Jewish, and Linda Stephens, an atheist — are challenging its practice in their town.

They’re not entirely against all prayers at government meetings but claim the vast majority of prayers contain Christian references to the Holy Spirit, Jesus Christ and Your Son. This is similar, of course, to the Hammond City Council meetings as well as countless other meetings here and across the country.

“I wrote a memo to each councilman advising them that the Greece case is very similar to a practice we have in Hammond, and I advised them that they should monitor this case closely,” McDermott told me. “I then posted something similar on Facebook.”

In that post, he made it clear that he’s a confirmed Catholic, and obviously a believer in God, but he’s also a believer in the First Amendment and the separation between church and state.

“For those of you that do not see any harm from the reading of bible verses before government meetings, let me ask the following question: Would you feel the same way about this issue if a future Hammond councilman prayed to Allah and the Koran instead of Jesus and the Christian Bible?” McDermott wrote.

“I have a feeling if that were the case, there would be outrage in Hammond and a demand to end the practice of state sanctioned endorsements of one religion over another.”

I agree completely with that statement, and all of us know this is true. However, McDermott’s public statement on this issue also found immediate criticism.

“If I had known you I would NEVER have voted for you,” commented one Facebook follower on McDermott’s post.

Government meetings “should begin with the Pledge (of Allegiance), not a prayer,” commented Karen H.

“But then you will get people complaining that ‘Under God’ is said during the pledge. It’s a never ending battle,” commented Tom K.

“As President of the Board of Trustees for the School District of East Chicago,” wrote Jesse Gomez, “I too share your concern. That’s why I don’t have prayer at our meetings.”

Valparaiso Mayor Jon Costas told me that he, too, believes it is not appropriate to recite prayers at public government meetings. His city does not do so, nor has anyone asked for such a request under his mayoral term.

“We appreciate our local faith community, but we just say the Pledge of Allegiance at our meetings,” he noted.

The Rev. Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, a Washington, D.C.-based watchdog group, told USA Today, “A town council meeting isn’t a church service, and it shouldn’t seem like one.”

“Government can’t serve everyone in the community when it endorses one faith over others,” said Lynn, whose organization is legally representing the two women from Greece, N.Y. “That sends the clear message that some are second-class citizens based on what they believe about religion.”

An appeals court ruled that the town had taken sides, allowing more Christian prayers than any other, essentially forcing the U.S. Supreme court to address the case, beginning this fall. According to several news reports, the high court refused to hear similar cases at least three times before, and it is expected to decide on this case by summer of next year.

I have personally witnessed innumerable prayers, devotions and cited biblical scripture before and during public meetings I’ve attended for my job through the years. Although I’m agnostic, I have no problem with such gestures to God – any God – unless they become overly didactic or time consuming.

I simply bow my head out of respect and take that moment to reflect.

With our country’s ever-expanding ethnicity and more secularized society, it’s inevitable that this issue be addressed by our highest court.

But I’d be more interested in what our Founding Fathers would say about it, considering our country’s pluralistic status in the 21st century.

‘Off the Eaten Path’

I am still receiving recommendations from readers for my new “Off the Eaten Path” feature of noting local restaurants that may go unnoticed by too many residents. Here is the latest batch of suggestions.

“Jerry, the next time you are in Crown Point, in the lower level of the courthouse on the square is Valentino’s Cafe & Ice Cream Parlor,” Lee Nuzzo said. “Best homemade soup and great sandwiches.”

“Flamingo Pizza (in the Miller section) of Gary has hands down the best pizza in the area, and a 25 percent discount every Monday,” said Gary Y. of Gary.

Other eateries include El Cantarito Mexican Cuisine in Portage, Rolling Stonebaker pizza truck in Beverly Shores, Marti’s Place in Hebron, Wagner’s Ribs in Porter, and Meditrina Market Café and Restaurante don Quijote, both in Valparaiso.

Connect with Jerry via email, at jdavich@post-trib.com, voice mail, at 713-7237, or Facebook, Twitter, and his blog, at jerrydavich.wordpress.com.



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