Jerry Davich: Prayerful government meetings common yet controversial
JERRY DAVICH June 2, 2013 9:30PM
The River Forest School Board starts their meeting Tuesday January 10, 2006 with a short prayer led by board member Marshall Gilliana, right. -- Brian Pierro/Post-Tribune
Updated: July 4, 2013 6:08AM
Portage Mayor Jim Snyder was one of the few Northwest Indiana public officials to contact me and publicly voice support for prayers at government meetings.
“The city has a local volunteer pastor come and pray before each council meeting,” he told me. “We also start our closed door department head meetings in prayer.”
The practice of offering prayers of some kind at government meetings has been taking place for more than two centuries. But the U.S. Supreme Court recently agreed to finally address the controversial issue by ruling on a case of two women who are challenging this practice in their town of Greece, N.Y.
I addressed this issue in a previous column and reader feedback was passionate and polarizing, including from local elected officials. For instance, Hammond Mayor Thomas McDermott and Valparaiso Mayor Jon Costas believe it is “not appropriate” to begin government meetings with prayers of any kind.
“I am trying to avoid Hammond getting sued for violation of the 1st Amendment’s Establishment’s clause, which is similar to the case of Greece, N.Y.,” he told me.
Conversely, the cities of Portage, Gary and several other region municipalities include a prayer with their meetings. On a broader level, this includes meetings for Congress and at the Indiana Statehouse, where prayers have been led by Buddhists, rabbis, Catholics and every other religion, including legislators.
“We pray each session day in the chamber, before the official call to order,” said Indiana State Rep. Ed Soliday, R-Valparaiso. “The issue went to the Supreme Court in 2007, I think, and we stay in compliance with the court decision.”
Snyder said his city will continue with prayers until otherwise ordered by the Supreme Court’s ruling, which is expected next summer. The nation’s highest court will begin its deliberations this fall.
Snyder echoes the bible-based views of many readers who contacted me, defending the practice of offering prayers at government meetings.
“Sometimes these outside groups are ridiculous, and probably won’t rest until any mention of God, scripture or religion is chiseled away from our public monuments in Washington D.C., and around the country,” Snyder said.
“If government continues to capitulate to these radical organizations we will soon lose the very heritage many believe has made our nation so great.”
Portage, its mayor notes, is a community of faith and City Hall’s prayerful practice is reflective of the residents’ views.
“Not one resident or Councilperson has complained about the practice,” he added. “If forced by the government to stop this, we would be remiss not to find some other legal method to appeal to the almighty to help our great city.”
Not only are Northwest Indiana public officials divided on this deeply embedded issue. Region residents are, too.
Carol Dell’s response to her “ultra conservative friends and family members” is similar to McDermott’s when prayer supporters bemoan the fact that “God is being taken out of” public meetings, U.S. coins, and public places.
“So then,” she asked, “if the word God is allowed, you have no objection to the word Allah being used also? Or of Allah or Buddha being erected on public spaces?”
Stacey Shaffer agrees, writing: “How would these same people react to, say, half the room getting on the floor and bowing down five times daily? Would that be OK? What if the other half howled at the moon?
“This country has evolved spiritually,” she commented on social media. “You can’t harness everyone like cattle into Christianity. Religious freedom is not for sale or debate.”
Dell, who calls herself a Christian, said, “I’ve corrected people when they say that America is a Christian nation. It never was intended to be one religion or any religion. The people who came here were looking for religious freedom and our founders specified separation of church and state. There is not one mention of God in our Constitution or Bill of Rights.”
Mona Stern, who calls herself a Jew and atheist, “intensely dislikes” prayers before government meetings.
“I don’t even think the Pledge of Allegiance belongs there with its ‘under God’ phrase,” she said. “Let meetings just start. We don’t need these preliminaries. Prayers belong in places of worship and people who want to pray should just go there.”
Don Smith of Valparaiso called to say the two New York women should reconsider their stance and beliefs.
“They need to find out where they came from. God put them in this world,” he said. “Prayer is mandatory in everything you do. If you don’t invite God with prayers in our society, you might as well just hang it up.”
Gordon Wilder takes a more philosophical viewpoint, noting, “We should glory in our freedom of religion, and allow religion to be a part of that freedom.”
Dozens of other readers continued this debate on social media sites, including McDermott’s Facebook page as well as mine. Feel free to join the discussion there, and I will revisit this topic in the fall unless a local municipality changes its policy.
Connect with Jerry via email, at email@example.com, voice mail, at 713-7237, or Facebook, Twitter, and his blog, at jerrydavich.wordpress.com.