It may be very difficult to find a single citizen who has been harmed by the practice of having a local clergyman say a prayer prior to each meeting of the Rapid City Common Council.

But a national nontheism group, Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF) has somehow discovered this practice right here in our small town. They have asked the council to discontinue the tradition, claiming it violates the establishment clause of the Constitution’s First Amendment.

Malarkey. There is nothing in the First Amendment preventing a city council, the United States Senate, House of Representatives or any other gathering of elected officials from having an invocation prior to their proceedings.

The First Amendment: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”

There now. What we’re really talking about is the first phrase. There is no law on the books in Rapid City respecting an establishment of religion, nor prohibiting the free exercise of any religion. Praying before a council meeting doesn’t prohibit anything. Likewise, there is no law prohibiting prayer prior to a meeting.

In fact, the council has in the past, and probably will in the future, invited prayers from a variety of religions. There have been Jewish prayers and Sioux prayers, Catholic, Methodist, Lutheran, Presbyterian and many other prayers. To my knowledge, there have been no Hindu or Buddhist prayers. However, I’ve not heard any mayor or council member object to one.

Contained in the FFRF’s request is the thinly veiled threat of litigation, if the city does not comply. At a recent council meeting, the council, on the advice of the city attorney, was asked to give the mayor permission to have the city attorney develop an invocation policy.

Now, there’s a slippery slope. If the policy he brings forward appears to establish an “official” city religion, the city will be on unstable ground.

Yes, the First Amendment guarantees a freedom from religion. That was the point. The framers wanted freedom from King George’s Church of England. They had every opportunity to make Christianity the official religion and chose not to. Contrary to what many at the council meeting declared, the United States is not a Christian country; it is a free country. We all have the right to believe or not believe.

The policy must be completely even-handed, giving equal respect to believers and non-believers -- or the council must reject it.

But there is no harm in following the city attorney’s advice, if he believes doing so would help him in defend against probable FFRF litigation.

Only Charity Doyle, Chad Lewis and Ron Sasso voted to ignore their own attorney’s advice. They won’t be bullied, they said. Apparently, they believe it is better to bull-headedly go stomping unprepared into probable litigation, no matter the cost. Sorry, but that is just stupid.

Almost every city council meeting prayer asks that the council members be wise in their deliberations. Sigh with me, gentle readers.

[This story has been changed to reflect a correction. City Council Alderman Ron Sasso voted no on developing an invocation policy for the city. Also, the Freedom From Religion Foundation promotes nontheism.]

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

(20) comments

TallySkeptic
TallySkeptic

The author of the essay says “If the policy he brings forward appears to establish an “official” city religion, the city will be on unstable ground.” The city is already on unstable ground because the policy it already implements with respect to an invocation does establish an official city religion. What is the dogma of this official city religion?

1. That there exists a supernatural intelligent agent.
2. That this agent listens to communications addressed to it.
3. That this agent approves of or desires these communications to it.
4. That this agent sometimes makes favorable interventions in human affairs in response to requests.
5. That this agent will reward those who praise it and will punish those who do not.

City officials use city work time and city property to promulgate this dogma and establish the city religion. This is an obvious and transparent violation of the Establishment Clause. Invocations at city meetings should be stopped immediately.

Ruth69
Ruth69

When I was a child, we were taught that silent prayer is as effective as spoken prayer (and on this surely the FFRF would agree). When did American Christians start needing the public ceremony as warned against in Matthew 6?

davidtkhayes
davidtkhayes

No one should have to participate in anyone else's religious ritual in order to participate in their government. Government is supposed to be for everybody. If you want a prayer before the meeting, have it in the hallway, in the parking lot, at church before you get there - whatever. But not at the meeting.

Revelation
Revelation

Sasso has a blog post on his website regarding this issue.

Roland
Roland

You do?

Deklan
Deklan

@Revelation
This is the second time you've noted you have a blog post up.

I don't know if you're trying to drum up hits on your site or what... The Journal has readers who don't have access to a computer... If you believe it's important for the public to know anymore on this issue, you can submit it to the Journal as a forum piece.


comeonalready
comeonalready

lol...more attacks coming from Kooikers cronies.

Kooikers Cronies - sounds like a bad breakfast cereal name.

Dogwoman
Dogwoman

We have the right as tax-paying American citizens to go to our government meeting without having somebody else's prayer forced on us- IN MIXED COMPANY OBVIOUSLY- formal organized specific prayer designed to encompass everyone in the group- and demanding silent approval and respect from everyone in the group. It must be hard for the big organized religions to face the fact that times are changing and you can no longer FORCE your beliefs on other people in the hope that they will convert. If you want respect, you have to give respect. Have your prayer before or after my government meeting. Or give me back my sales taxes and property taxes that I have paid for the past 40 years.

Scat
Scat

never understand this argument.. aren't you forcing your beliefs on others by asking them to stop doing something they believe in and feel is important? It's a two way street.. so in this circumstance I think the majority should prevail.

TallySkeptic
TallySkeptic

From a legal perspective even a local majority cannot violate the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment, just like a local majority could not establish slavery.

blackhillsmarine
blackhillsmarine

The Mayor frequently ignores the city attorney advice and I don't recall you making an issue of it then. So why do you make a point of this when a council members does it? Are you looking to hurt these particular members? Or do you not care about the facts?

Recent examples of Mayor disregard for attorney advice:
City Attorney and the Attorney General said Compass could have unnoticed work sessions before their public noticed meeting.
City Attorney said that Council could go in to executive session for alderman investigation.

Be even handed Mr. Sanborn or move on. The public shouldn't have to correct your stories,

Roland
Roland

I wonder if Mr. Sandborn even writes the articles, or if Kooiker just writes them and Mr. Sandborn puts his name on them.

AJS-XR
AJS-XR

Why can't they respect the First Amendment (specifically the Establishment Clause) and maintain the separation of church and state in city council meetings? No one is saying that those of the religious faith can't get together prior to the meeting for prayers if they feel the need. The fact that they are doing this during the meeting is an appearance that they are trying to establish religious practice. Save that for church.

Rhudedog
Rhudedog

Interesting opinion you have there. Too bad it's wrong

Roland
Roland

Dear Mr. Sandborn:

I am here to correct your inaccuracies. It wasn't just Doyle and Lewis that voted against researching a policy. It was also Sasso. Interesting that you mention those 2 but not Sasso...

(from meeting minutes: Upon vote being taken the motion to continue carried (6-3) with the following voting AYE: Scott, Petersen, Roberts, Laurenti, Clayton and Nordstrom; NO: Doyle, Lewis and Sasso.)

Also, it is interesting that you say they are stupid for not wanting a policy because of the city being sued. Well, also from the minutes:


Mayor Kooiker addressed the possibility that the policy could initiate a legal challenge noting that the city would seek private donations for a defense fund. Petersen relinquished the chair to Mayor Kooiker. Roberts voiced support for the policy noting that city cannot allow outside interests to dictate its actions. Doyle voiced her agreement with the Mayor’s comments noting that a policy will not protect or prevent the city from a lawsuit. Blanc assured the council that there were various organizations which provide pro-bono legal representation for these types of lawsuits. Discussion continued regarding development of the policy. Scott called the question, no objections were offered.

comeonalready
comeonalready

hey they updated the article! on behalf of sandborn thank you for doing his homework for him.

ttpilot
ttpilot

Why hasn't the council had a mullah in to do the invocation? I'm sure Mullah Khameini could persuaded to speak. If not him how about a Wiccan? Asatru? Baha'i? No one will be offended, right?

Rhudedog
Rhudedog

Simply because one person has a distorted view of reality and wants to object to praying won't fly. There is no right 'not to be offended' found in the Constitution

Dogwoman
Dogwoman

One person? You think in this city only one person is not christian? I would really have to challenge that number by alot. There are many people out there that are not christian for anyone that wants to open their eyes. Even if it was only one person- that is reason to stop this practice. What was that about a "distortion of reality?"

TallySkeptic
TallySkeptic

Your belief that somebody has a distorted view of reality because they do not agree with your religious convictions is not relevant to this issue. Prayer at city meetings violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.

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