Prayers before city council meetings have complete public support from the city council, despite pleas from a small minority of residents asking the council to consider ending the longstanding practice.
The council discussion in front of the 100-plus, standing room only crowd at Monday's regular council meeting follows a recent request from a national nonprofit to end the prayers. The request was prompted by a complaint from a Rapid City resident.
A litany of testimony lasting 40 minutes from pastors and residents cited the First Amendment, the Founding Fathers, longstanding tradition and the need for God to guide Rapid City as valid reasons to continue prayer.
"My generation, my children and my grandchildren need to be able to look at their peers and know they seek out God's wisdom," Roy Best, a resident, said. "Because any time God is taken out of our government in any way, that country starts to slide into chaos."
Those who testified urged the council to fight the request from the Freedom From Religion Foundation, a Wisconsin-based nonprofit promoting separation of church and state, to end prayer before council meetings.
Some pledged financial support if the city ends up in a lawsuit over the prayer. One pastor said he'd already heard at least one national organization was considering covering Rapid City's legal fees should a lawsuit ensue.
Only two of the 15 people who testified Monday opposed the prayers before council meetings. Cole Bedford, a senior at South Dakota School of Mines & Technology, asked the council to have a moment of silence in lieu of a sectarian prayer.
"This is not a challenge to anyone's faith. It's an appeal to your empathy" said Bedford, an atheist who grew up in Sturgis attending church. He added that in a predominantly Christian region, it's important for a non-Christian to know they have an equal voice in government, a message that holding religious prayers does not send.
The council vowed without exception to fight back against Freedom From Religion, dubbing the group outsider bullies.
"I don't like being bullied. I don't like my children being bullied," council member Chad Lewis said. "I don't think (praying) hurts anybody. I don't see where it's actually offending anybody."
Council member Steven Laurenti passionately defended what he sees as a right to pray.
"What they really want, ladies and gentlemen, is conformity. They want us to conform to a way they would like to see us express religion," Laurenti said. "That's not freedom and that's not the free exercise thereof."
The battle over prayers is only the beginning, Mayor Sam Kooiker said, with attempts to remove other venerated traditions such the phrase "In God we trust" on currency and the Pledge of Allegiance, which mentions "One nation, under God" soon to come.
"Their goal isn't simply to amend the process of prayer at council meetings or in the public square, but to end it altogether," Kooiker said.
The council voted 6-3 to draft a policy, which the council will see in six weeks. They only disagreed on whether a policy was necessary, not whether prayers should stay.
Many other cities and school boards around the country have bowed to Freedom From Religion by ending government-sanctioned prayers. The implied threat of a lawsuit that accompanies the letters asking municipalities to stop praying would have cost too much.
Rapid City doesn't look likely to back down, especially with public support for the prayers.
"I urge you to stand firm and reject this threat with prejudice regardless of the cost," Ed Randazzo, a resident, said. "You can count on my support when you do."
Contact Aaron Orlowski at 484-7069 or firstname.lastname@example.org