The manner in which city officials pray is not in violation of constitutional law, said City Attorney Stephen Dexter during Monday’s City Commission meeting.
Dexter presented summaries of two “landmark cases” to support his legal assessment that praying in government meetings is not unconstitutional.
In Marsh v. Chambers, the U.S. Supreme Court held that the practice of the Nebraska legislature of opening each session with a prayer by a chaplain did not violate the First Amendment, according to a memorandum written by former City Attorney Vince Pennington in June 2011.
“The opening of sessions of legislative and other deliberative public bodies is deeply embedded in the history and tradition of this country,” the Supreme Court decision states.
The other case to which Dexter and Pennington referred was Wynne v. Town of Great Falls, S.C.
The town council’s practice of opening its meetings with prayer was unconstitutional because prayers were addressed to Jesus, Christ, Jesus Christ, or the Savior, according to a federal appellate court decision. When the plaintiff objected to the Judeo-Christian practice, she was ridiculed and harassed by council members.
“Because the prayers of the Great Falls Town Council had the effect of promoting one religion — Christianity — over all others, exploiting the prayer opportunity to affiliate the government with one specific faith or belief in preference to others, it was deemed a violation of the First Amendment ...,” Pennington wrote.
Dexter said there is no reason for commissioners to think a non-denominational prayer could not pass “constitutional muster.”
Commissioner Kevin Caudill said, “I appreciate your research and giving us something to hang our hats on.”
Caudill along with Commissioners James “J.H.” Atkins and Paige Stevens reported that many area residents had called them urging them not to end the practice of praying before meetings.
They as well as Commissioner Paul Smiley and Mayor Bernie Hunstad said they would like to keep prayer in the meetings.
Smiley opened Monday’s meeting — the first of his term — with a non-denominational prayer. Dexter said Smiley’s prayer, like all other City Commission prayers he had heard during the last few years, had maintained a level of appropriateness.
During the public comments portion of the meeting, resident J.P. Brantley said, “I wonder whether having prayer seeming to be one of the requirements of the commission may keep some people from running.”
In other business:
- Paige Stevens, who just started her second non-consecutive City Commission term, was appointed mayor pro tem. She received the most votes during the November election. Hunstad recommended that commissioners stick to the tradition of appointing the person who garnered the most votes.
- After a brief discussion, City Commissioners decided to change to a “rotating” voting method instead of the former method in which the mayor casts the last vote. “It’s about perception,” Caudill said.
- Commissioners unanimously voted to move the public comments period to the beginning of meetings. Atkins said he would like to hear people’s opinions on issues before he votes.
Staff writer Stephanie Collins contributed to this report.