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.