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.]