Should prayers be allowed during government meetings?

News-DemocratFebruary 16, 2014 

While U.S. Supreme Court justices consider a ruling on whether prayer should be allowed at public government meetings, several metro-east city council and county board meetings include prayers.

Public meetings in Fairview Heights, Collinsville, Maryville and Granite City begin with a prayer. The "Our Father" is recited at the beginning of the St. Clair County Board meeting. And a moment of silence is held after the Pledge of Allegiance at Caseyville meetings.

"We are a pretty strong faith-based community," said Collinsville Mayor John Miller.

Representatives the Collinsville Area Ministerial Association take turns leading a prayer at the beginning of the Collinsville City Council meetings.

"It crosses the different guidelines of the churches," Miller said, mentioning pastors from Lutheran, Catholic, Baptist and Nazarene churches.

"All of our churches are very well community oriented and do things for the community," Miller said.

Corey Johnston, a pastor of Heights Church in Collinsville, recently led a prayer at a City Council meeting.

"For me, it's kind of an honor," he said.

"It was nothing formal. I just prayed for the men and women in there leading, for wisdom for them and for the workers for the city," he said.

In November, the U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments in Town of Greece, N.Y., v. Galloway that challenged a municipality's practice of beginning each town board meeting with an invocation. The U.S. Supreme Court has not made a decision on that case.

ACLU response

"It's a really a religious freedom issue because it really creates an unnecessary and dangerous entanglement between government and religion," said Ed Yohnka, director of communications and public policy for the American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois.

Yohnka described how the court case arose from Christian leaders in the town of Greece reciting prayers at the beginning of the government meetings. He said a Jewish person sitting at the meeting might feel like an outsider or that he is not being represented by the government body that his tax dollars are supporting.

A ruling on the case has the potential to eliminate prayer from public meetings, Yohnka said.

"We may see the court rule in the way that affects the way that these prayers happen at the municipal level and the legislative level all across the country," Yohnka said.

Reaction from readers

In an informal, nonscientific poll of BND readers, 11 emailers said they were in favor of prayer at public meetings and four said they were against it.

"Absolutely it is OK to pray at a public meeting," wrote Scott Herzing, of Swansea. "This whole separation of church and state has been taken too far and misinterpreted. It is not in the constitution or the Bill of Rights."

John Sedlacek, of St. Jacob, wrote that he was against prayer in public meetings. "I can pray and keep it to myself," he said in an email. "If you want to pray in public, go to church."

Cindy LaFrance, of O'Fallon, said she no problem with prayer in public meeting. "Praying at public meetings does not equate to making a law respecting the establishment of a religion," she said.

Don Koonce, a former Collinsville City Council member, was against prayer. At the beginning of those meetings, he said he listened to religious leaders pray for elected officials, firefighters, police officers and city employees but never for taxpayers.

"I strongly believe that there should indeed be a separation of church and state," he wrote in an email.

Sharon Webb, of Troy, said prayer is necessary: "That is if you want decisions that are made to be the right ones. Whether people want to admit it or not our country was founded with God and prayer at the very basis."

Caseyville Mayor Leonard Black reads the names of residents who died since the previous village meeting and then follows it by a moment of silence.

"It's kind of just to say a silent prayer, you could put anything you want to it," Black said. "I don't bring any religion or church into it."

Contact reporter Maria Hasenstab at mhasenstab@bnd.com or 618-239-2460.

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