The Rapid City Council voted unanimously Monday night against establishing a policy that calls for prayer at its meetings.
The vote means the city will continue to look at prayer as a tradition as it prepares for a potential lawsuit against the Freedom from Religion Foundation, a national nonprofit agency that has sent at least two letters to the city raising concerns about the practice.
“We’re not going to have a policy,” said Ward 3 Alderman Jerry Wright, who made the first motion to deny creating a policy. “We are simply going to follow tradition.”
While voting to accept the last of six options presented by City Attorney Joel Landeen, the council also decided to explore offers made by other groups to help with its legal defense if it is sued by Freedom from Religion. The council will revisit that issue in June.
According to Landeen, the city has received offers from several organizations, including the Liberty Council, which has offered pro bono legal representation. Alliance Defending Freedom, the Liberty Institute and the American Center for Law and Justice have also contacted the city, he said.
One option proposed at Monday night’s city council meeting was to simply list the invocation before roll call on the city council agenda. Now, the roll call of council members is listed first on the agenda.
By doing so, Landeen said in his report that prayer will not be a formal part of the meeting and that no one, including council members, will be required or feel pressured to participate.
Mayor Sam Kooiker said he wasn’t sure that would change the legal landscape, a position that was shared earlier Monday by a Freedom from Religion representative.
“So long as it’s still included in the meeting, it doesn’t make any difference,” said Patrick Elliott, staff attorney for Freedom from Religion. “If it’s scheduled by the government body, it’s going to be government speech.”
“It’s an official policy to have prayer,” Freedom from Religion co-president Annie Laurie Gaylor added.
Gaylor went on to say that approach had been tried before.
“That doesn’t make any difference,” she said. “That’s some ruse that has not been court sanctioned. I guess it gives them something to vote on.”
Elliot said the switcheroo has been tried before, citing the 2011 North Carolina case of Joiner v. Forsyth.
“That was something that was tried there and failed,” he said.
Other policy options the council considered Monday night was to make it clear that the invocation would not used as platform to advance a particular religion or disparage another; make sure prayer is not sectarian; establish a formal process to invite people to do the invocation; place a time limit on the invocation; and have no policy at all.
Before the council voted to unanimously reject any policy, Ward 5 Alderman Ron Sasso made a motion to keep the tradition of prayer without having the council revisit the issue in June.
The council rejected that motion on an 8-2 vote.
In other action, the council continued a rate increase for 766 leased parking spaces.
The increase will be further explored by the Legal and Finance Committee, pending some new considerations on intergovernmental spending.
The money is needed to help make payments on a $2.465 million bond for the third floor of the downtown parking ramp.
The parking rates, which now range from $20 to $40 per month depending upon the lot, have not been raised since 1997 despite a failed attempt in 2008.
Hotel Alex Johnson rents the most parking spots of any business, with 78 spaces.
This story has been changed to reflect a correction. The Rapid City Council voted unanimously against establishing a policy for prayer at its meetings and will revisit the issue in June. Ward 5 Alderman Ron Sasso made a motion to reject changes to the invocation tradition without having the council revisit the issue in June. The council rejected Sasso's motion before its unanimous vote.