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.