SANBORN: Fueling the fire on public prayer

2013-02-20T06:30:00Z SANBORN: Fueling the fire on public prayerMichael Sanborn Journal columnist Rapid City Journal
February 20, 2013 6:30 am  • 

Cat, my golden retriever, thinks I’m perfect. Scratch behind her ear, feed her, make sure her water is clean and let her retrieve a downed dove or pheasant and perfection is achieved. She’s easily pleased.

I’m not perfect. In last week’s column, I erred by not including Ward 5 Alderman Ron Sasso among those who voted against directing the city attorney to draft a policy on invocations. The city attorney recommended this, and, like the other two alderpersons who refused to vote in favor of it, I think Sasso’s vote was dumb. Why do we pay a city attorney if we are going to ignore his advice?

My omission of Sasso’s vote was accidental. But I should have checked the meeting minutes. So, the impact of suggesting Sasso’s and the other two alderpersons’ votes reflected stupidity has been diminished by my own.

But six other alderpersons voted to have the policy drafted. It will be presented to the Legal and Finance Committee on March 13.

With a feeling of empowerment fueled by a handful of speakers pledging to provide financial support to any effort to defend prayer prior to city council meetings, Mayor Sam Kooiker sent a letter to city staff declaring the city would fight the Freedom From Religion Foundation’s (FFRF) demand to end the prayers. Whatever money is donated, it won’t be enough.

“We are going to fight this nonsensical effort to remove prayer from our meetings. We aren’t backing down,” the mayor said in a weekly update to employees.

There was nothing shrewd about this move. The message was a flippant, glib poke to FFRF’s eye. It was unnecessary and flawed in its nyana, nyana, nyah-nyah tone, including examples of how the city has spent taxpayer dollars on Christian activities at the funerals of two fallen police officers and at a memorial service remembering the 1972 flood.

In a search of FFRF’s website, I found no instances of where their efforts to end prayer prior to council meetings were successful in court. But there are numerous examples where the threat of litigation resulted in a decision to cease the practice.

The vast majority of the FFRF’s efforts have been to remove religious influence in public schools. Many of their legal challenges end when their targets acquiesce, rather than face the expensive alternative of fighting in court. The foundation does not sue municipalities very often.

An even-handed policy might have averted costly litigation. Council president Bonny Peterson, in a Sunday Journal article, said that while she supports the invocations, she’s not certain she wants the city to fight in court over it. That may now be moot.

The mayor’s letter did two things. First, it upset some city employees who complained to FFRF, thereby giving them witnesses to testify in their favor. Prior to the mayor’s letter, that might have been difficult.

And second, it lit a fire under the FFRF to pursue Rapid City’s case, probably moving it to the top of the stack of lawsuits to file.

The mayor’s letter seemed to condescendingly say, “Bring it on.” And those are three of the most dangerous words in politics.

Michael Sanborn lives in Rapid City. Write to The opinions expressed by this freelance columnist are his own and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Rapid City Journal.

Copyright 2015 Rapid City Journal. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

(8) Comments

  1. RC fan10
    Report Abuse
    RC fan10 - February 22, 2013 10:36 am
    From what I have heard, the "letter" in this article wasn't a random letter sent out to employees by the Mayor. It was part of a weekly update the Mayor sends out and it was totally appropriate for him to explain certain policy positions in it. I'm afraid this memo was sorely misrepresented here.
  2. Rhudedog
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    Rhudedog - February 21, 2013 10:05 am
    Christians - just as other religions - don’t believe that all cultures, beliefs or lifestyle choices are equally good. (Phony gods can't help anyone do anything which is why Christians & Jews only call on the God of Abraham, Issac & Jacob.) Conservative Christians began this Country and we don't intend to pretend He doesn't exist in our daily lives.

    How is OUR praying violating YOUR conscience Sir? Where’s YOUR tolerance?
  3. Revelation
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    Revelation - February 21, 2013 7:47 am
    Radical, the invocation is not always a Christian prayer and thus not a clear establishment of religion. As a result, the First Amendment applies.
  4. rradical
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    rradical - February 20, 2013 9:27 pm
    Revelation, the First Amendment does not protect official Christian prayer at a meeting, because that is clear establishment of religion. The only way out of this if FFRF decides to proceed (and the mayor's actions absolutely are inviting them) is to replace the prayer time with a moment of silence.
  5. Revelation
    Report Abuse
    Revelation - February 20, 2013 7:10 pm
    Roland, I agree with you completely that we do not need a policy. Prayer is protected by the First Amendment and we get onto a slippery slope when we are creating a law for it (which the First Amendment says we shouldn't do). I fear that what will be created will be a watered down version that restricts the freedom of religion.

    The City Attorney typically provides good advice but there are times when the waters aren't as clear. This is one of them. Bringing forward a policy is actually encouraging litigation.

    Sanborn is human like the rest of us. All of us are flawed. No one is perfect....
  6. Rhudedog
    Report Abuse
    Rhudedog - February 20, 2013 9:26 am
    Since the real bullies in America exist primarily in government and primarily on the left, Sanborn is badly in need of learning a lesson in preventing bullying. I am thankful we have a Mayor such as Sam whom young boys can learn from and look up to where he swallows his fears and stand up to these bullies. You see part of becoming a man Mr. Sanborn is learning to overcome fear, stand up to bullies and solve your own problems
  7. WOFY
    Report Abuse
    WOFY - February 20, 2013 7:41 am
    This article addresses the pattern of this administrations lack of leadership for our city.

    p.s. never thought I would see Mr. Sanborn challenge this Mayors position on anything. .
  8. Roland
    Report Abuse
    Roland - February 20, 2013 7:35 am
    Wow. What a switch in attitude. One has to wonder if more Kooiker followers are abandoning the SS Sammy as it sinks, or if Mr. Sandborn is simply covering his you-know-what by being critical of the Mayor for the first time. Interesting.

    It is a bit disappointing, however, to see the first 1/3 of the article dedicated to making excuses for leaving Sasso out of the initial article. Mr. Sandborn, were you at the meeting? If not did you watch it? If not, why not? You knew what you were there or watching the meeting to write about, so you expect us to believe that you missed the part where they voted? Blah. Not buyin it.

    I still don't understand needing a policy, which nobody seems to believe will really prevent us from getting sued. And I really don't understand why a professional "writer" would call people dumb and stupid for not wanting a policy, especially when the person writing the article can't even get his facts straight.

    Lastly, the argument that we should just blindly listen to the City Attorney is ridiculous. Why even have a Mayor and council then? Why not just let the Finance Officer and City Attorney run the city without question? Please. Get real Sandborn.
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