Rapid City ministers were preaching to the choir Wednesday when they urged members of the city's Legal & Finance Committee to oppose a request by a national organization to end the practice of praying before council meetings.
Before the committee voted unanimously for a policy to be drafted to address the complaint made by the group Freedom from Religion, Council Member Steve Laurenti said he believed that prayers are protected speech under the First Amendment.
"I believe this prayer is the free exercise thereof," he said. "This municipal government is not making any law respecting any type of religion."
City government is addressing the issue after the national nonprofit organization sent a letter to the city asking that it end its policy of opening city council meetings with prayers, claiming the practice violates the Establishment clause of the Constitution.
The organization said it sent its letter to the city after it received a complaint from a Rapid City resident.
At Wednesday's meeting, Calvary Chapel Community Church Pastor Greg Blanc asked council members to continue "this longstanding tradition in our city."
"Based on our community values and standards, we believe it's wisdom to maintain this practice," said Blanc, who was representing the Rapid City Ministerial Association.
John Dennis, director of communications for the Family Heritage Alliance, urged the council members to hold their ground on the matter.
"We'd really like to ask you consider holding onto this wonderful tradition. Whether we're in this room or not, we're on a regular basis praying for our elected leaders," he said.
The committee voted unanimously to ask the city attorney's office to draft a policy outlining the city's official practice on prayers before meetings.
City Attorney Joel Landeen said the policy could be adopted after just one reading and one vote by the entire council. He said he expected a policy should be available for the full council to vote on in a couple weeks.
Landeen said in a memo that a policy could help if a lawsuit were filed against the city, though it would not guarantee the city would prevail. Freedom From Religion has filed lawsuits in other cases nationwide on separation of church and state issues.