Traditionally, Rapid City starts each city council meeting with a prayer led by a local minister, a ritual that now is under scrutiny from a national organization that has initiated litigation in other cases involving the separation of church and state.
The Freedom From Religion Foundation, which is based in Madison, Wis., has notified the city that it has received a complaint from a Rapid City resident who objects to the invocations that start each council meeting. In a letter to the city, the nonprofit is asking the council to stop the prayers.
The request has not been well received by city leaders, including Mayor Sam Kooiker who is "strongly in favor of continuing the prayers."
"I believe that this is a time-honored tradition that has strong community support," he said, noting that the state Legislature and U.S. Congress open their sessions with a prayer.
According to an attorney with the organization, the prayers violate the Establishment clause of the Constitution that forbids Congress from making laws respecting an establishment of religion.
"This is a civil rights issue. It's not something that a majority can vote on and adopt, a preferred religion," said Patrick Elliot, the attorney who drafted the letter for Freedom from Religion.
The city council has had different ministers lead a prayer at the beginning of a meeting since at least the 1960s, Kooiker said. He supports drafting a policy on the prayers, which may protect the city in the case of a lawsuit, he said.
City Attorney Joel Landeen said there is no guarantee such a policy would protect the city in a lawsuit, though he still recommends writing one for the city council's consideration.
City Council President Bonny Petersen said she supports having prayers before a meeting as long as it complies with the law.
Freedom From Religion is not explicitly threatening a lawsuit in its letter to the city that details the complaint. But their attorney says the foundation will be making a nationwide push this year to resolve the prayer issue in the courts across the country if necessary.
"In the coming year, (Freedom From Religion) will be involved in lawsuits on this issue. I won't disclose where those cases will be," Elliot said. "Our preference is to not have a lawsuit. I don't think it's in anyone's interest to be in litigation like that."
Freedom From Religion has gotten results before. Just last week, the Plumas County Board of Supervisors in northern California removed prayer from the board's meeting agendas. In November of 2012, Freedom From Religion filed suited against the IRS for failing to enforce electioneering restrictions against churches and religious organizations. The case is ongoing.
Elliot said court precedent generally accepts prayers before government meetings as long as they're not too explicitly geared toward one religion. Prayers at Rapid City council meetings are often have Christian themes with references to Jesus and occasional theological assertions.
In November, Pastor David Kinnan of Fountain Springs Wesleyan prayed "You are the one true God, so we pray this in your name."
The complaint that prompted Freedom From Religion's letter isn't the first the foundation has received from Rapid City, although it is the first it has responded to, Elliot said.
A workable compromise, Elliot said, would be for the city council to hold a moment of silence before meetings, though ideally there would be no prayer at all.
"I think the best thing is for the council to just get down to business and do the work they're there to do, rather than engage in religious issues," Elliot said.
Among other cities in the Black Hills, Spearfish, Lead, Deadwood and Belle Fourche do not pray before their council meetings. A previous mayor in Belle Fourche held prayers, but Mayor Gary Hendrickson has discontinued that practice.
Dale Bartscher, a Rapid City pastor and executive director of the Family Heritage Alliance, said prayers before city council meetings are appropriate.
"This is not an oddity that our city council opens with prayer. We are in the mainstream of our nation's Founding Fathers. Our nation was built upon Judeo-Christian values," he said.
Bartscher, who is among the ministers who have led prayers before city council meetings, argued it would be an infringement on his free speech as both a citizen and pastor if the prayers were disallowed.
Yvonne Taylor, executive director of the South Dakota Municipal League, said prayers before meetings should be a local decision, that a group outside Rapid City doesn't need to "stick its nose into."
"They're having a pause for prayer. It's not spending public money. They're taking a moment. I'm sure they're doing it in a manner respectful of other religions," Taylor said.
The city's Legal & Finance Committee will discuss the prayers at its meeting regular meeting Wednesday 12:30 p.m. in the council chambers.