With a burst of Biblical quotes and decidedly defiant rhetoric, Rapid City Council members drew a clear line in the sand on pre-meeting prayer when they voted to draft a policy to fend off a lawsuit by a national nonprofit organization.
Council members spoke passionately for prayer while making their case at a Feb. 4 meeting.
Council Member Bill Clayton served verse on an atheist student questioner. Mayor Sam Kooiker used his weekly dispatch to city employees the next day as a venue to explain why prayer is important and to proclaim the council was ready to fight in defense of the practice.
But the strong stance may have backfired.
On Friday, the Freedom From Religion Foundation sent a strongly worded second warning letter to the council, demanding an end to public prayers at city council meetings.
In a clear condemnation of the council’s outward references to religion, the group made specific note of Clayton’s remarks and Kooiker’s religious message to staff as examples of elected officials crossing a line on the issue of separation of church and state.
Kooiker’s statements may have further fueled the foundation, a Wisconsin-based group that has a strong track record of using the threat of litigation to end public prayer across the country.
The organization had previously contacted the council after it said a Rapid City resident complained about pre-meeting invocations the council has held since at least the 1960s.
In his email to city employees after the meeting that was attended by a large and vocal pro-prayer contingent, Kooiker pledged the city will fight the nonprofit in the inevitable court battle.
"This issue has brought the entire council and nearly the entire community together," Kooiker said in an e-newsletter. "We are going to stand and fight this nonsensical effort to remove prayer from our meetings. We aren’t backing down."
Apparently, not all city employees appreciated the mayor's message. Freedom From Religion said it has received emails from "a handful" of city employees concerned about his comments on the issue.
"This caused offense to a number of City staffers," the Freedom From Religion letter to the city says. "The Mayor's message marginalizes those who disagree with him and affirms that continuing with Christian prayers has the full support from the Mayor and the City."
Kooiker said Friday the newsletter was an appropriate forum to share his opinion and that the message was similar to what he said at the council meeting.
"I stand by my opinion and I believe that, based on the discussion, the entire city council is standing with me on this issue," Kooiker said. "I'm puzzled by the failure of this out-of-state group to recognize the benefit of this longstanding tradition."
Freedom From Religion is a national nonprofit that believes prayer before government meetings violates the Establishment Clause of the Constitution. It has more than 19,000 members and has either threatened or initiated lawsuits against local governments across the country.
In 2012, it sent letters to 900 local governments and 140 of those stopped holding prayers at meetings rather than pursue the matter in court. An attorney for the nonprofit said Friday that the response of the Rapid City council has been fierce, especially when it refers to his organization as a “bully.”
"I think the amount of vehemence and rhetoric used is much greater than I've seen in other areas," Patrick Elliott, who drafted both letters sent to Rapid City, said Friday. "That includes speeches by city council members and just vilifying those who disagree with what they're doing."
And, the attorney said, the organization is accustomed to criticism.
"We get hate mail all the time," Elliott said.
Earlier this month, the council tasked City Attorney Joel Landeen with drafting a policy formalizing the invocations. The six council members who argued for the policy said it would provide a defense against potential litigation.
The Freedom From Religion’s attorney said, however, that a policy that validates current practices will not prevail in the courts.
"If they continue as they are with sectarian prayers, any court is going to find that a violation," Elliott said.
Freedom From Religion's letter says the council's directive to craft a legally defensible policy is "an impossible task."
Landeen said Friday he stands by his previous statements when he told the council that a policy is "not a sure thing to insulate us."
"They are not going to be happy unless the invocation goes away," he said of the nonprofit.
Council President Bonny Petersen said she expected to see a second letter from Freedom From Religion. And while she supports the prayers, she is not sure that she wants to spend taxpayer money on a lawsuit either.
Editor's note: This story has been changed to reflect a clarification. Mayor Sam Kooiker did not quote scripture in his weekly email address to city employees and did not use the phrase "holy war."