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Invocation to Continue Before City Commission Meetings

An anonymous resident and the American Humanist Association sent a letter to the city last month requesting the city cease prayer before meetings.

In March an anonymous Sarasota resident contacted the American Humanist Association. The organization, on behalf of the resident, sent a letter to the city of Sarasota asking it to stopping having prayer before each city commission meeting.

Long after city auditor and clerk Pamela Nadalini did Monday night’s invocation, commissioners briefly discussed the merits of the letter and the legal implications of the continuing prayer before meetings.

City attorney Robert Fournier said this case is about the establishment clause, which says government entities shall establish no religious state.

Generally, Fournier said, to prove a violation of the establishment clause a party would have to prove a three-part test, but that case doesn’t apply to legislative prayer.

He said in this case, the Humanist Association has not provided any evidence that said the commission has degraded anyone because of religion

“I’m not aware of any evidence that suggests prayer has been exploited,” Fournier said.

Without much debate among commissioners, the commission took no action on the issue. That means the invocation before each meeting will remain.

“I don’t see any reason to change it,” said commissioner Dick Clapp.

Commissioner Terry Turner raised the lone concern. He questioned what the legal and financial ramifications of their decision might be.

“Assuming we are sued, what’s the likely cause of action to defend this,” Turner asked.

Fournier said that if a party had proof that the city had exploited religion than they would “settle”.

“If no one can come up with that evidence, we would be granted a summary judgment without a trial,” Fournier said.

Three members of the public spoke on the issue, two in favor of a prayer ban, one opposed.

“One nation under God didn’t exist when I learned the Pledge of Allegiance,” one commenter said.

Jim Lampl, who was on the city Charter Review Board, said during the public comments, “You’re all here to do the people’s business. Doing the people’s business is not about invoking the heavenly father.”

He added that Charter Review meetings never began with the Pledge of Allegiance or an invocation.

“We just commenced our meeting and we did the people’s business in public,” Lampl said. “Somehow we managed to do the business without religion.”

The lone resident speaking in favor of keeping prayer said, “We are one nation under God in terms of how we live together.”

Mayor Kelly Kirschner said the public, generally, is not opposed to prayer before meetings.

“I’ve been here for four years and we’ve had one anonymous complaint,” Kirschner said. 

Linda Wolf April 19, 2011 at 10:50 PM
I have been following this topic with much interest and much concern. Disclosure: I am an American who is agnostic and a humanist. I also enjoy living in a country which has as a founding concept, the 'separation of church and state'. When public leaders get together to 'do the people's business', I presume that means all the people, not just folks who share a particular belief system, which includes a belief in God or Gods. Many secular Americans are nontheistic, as am I. WE also pay taxes, vote. Some seculars are in the military. Others work for the gov't themselves. Some of you ask, what damage is done by prayer. For me, the question is less about damage than ignoring the fact that many of us are not represented in this activity. Personally, I am fine on meetings I attend where we are asked to honor a few minutes of silent reflection. That is respectful to nontheistic, atheistic and agnostic Americans and seculars as well. And those who wish to use that time in silent prayer, are also not excluded. We are all adults, are we not? Do we need to be 'lead' in this activity? Or can we manage to do, each of us, our prayer or reflection, in respectful silence for a few minutes.
Francine DiFilippo April 20, 2011 at 02:34 AM
Do you mean sectarian or secular? Everything doesn't have to acceptible to everyone. Isn't that recognizing diversity? There's a lot on TV that comes directly into my living room that I don't like either. I turn it off. I don't like to see women dressed in a provocative manner but I turn my eyes to look at something else. I don't know what the percentages are of all of the varieties and flavors of spirituality or lack there of but if in fact majority rules and even elects politicians and what we get for our lives I guess it's okay as long as you like what you get.
David Stone April 20, 2011 at 04:31 PM
I think it is insulting to say that the city commissioners were not there when the idea of separation of church and state was introduced in elementary school. Benjamin Franklin suggested prayer at the constitutional convention. Those who wrote the First Amendment obviously did not think it ruled out public prayers at legislative meetings. Prayers have always been said when Congress convenes. The idea that public prayers violate the separation clause of the First Amendment is a modern idea that certainly did not come from the Founders who wrote and adopted the First Amendment.
Francine DiFilippo April 20, 2011 at 06:08 PM
Here! Here!
Dogless in Sarasota April 21, 2011 at 04:25 PM
This is a very interesting subject. The government is working for all of the people and is not a religious institution. The way that the people at government meetings behave shows how they feel about all people, many of whom are not christian or have different religious beliefs or none at all. By saying a prayer that relates to one of the religions, even if it is the most common one, the meeting members are making the people with a different belief system or none feel less represented and somewhat excluded. If meeting leaders say, "So What?", they are displaying that they hold some people. the believers with whom they agree with, in higher esteem than the other people who feel no positive connection to their invocation. We should judge people on good work, morals, ethics and leave out the religion. Whether one believes or agrees with it or not should not matter here. I imagine that non believers have always thought that prayer with references to a deity to be strange and out of place in government meetings but did not feel safe enough to speak up about it as religious people often are not open to questioning their beliefs. Perhaps in the past such a prayer has always been recited, but now perhaps we should reconsider, even without a court case and skip the prayer, or just say something about focusing on the work to be done in the best way for the most people and the earth so that everyone knows that they are included and considered to be worthy of equal respect.

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