(CNSNews.com) – After being warned by an anti-religion group that praying before city council meetings was unconstitutional, the Woodruff, S.C. City Council partnered with a Christian legal group to adopt a new city policy approving prayer before council meetings.
“As long as I’m here, and I think as long as these people who were elected sit in front of you, we’re gonna’ open every meeting we have with prayer,” Woodruff Mayor Brad Burnett said at a city council meeting in June. “It makes no difference whether you appreciate that or don’t appreciate that. We’re gonna’ open our meetings with prayer.”
“America’s founders opened public meetings with prayer, and public officials today should be able to do the same,” Alliance Defense Fund (ADF) senior legal counsel Brett Harvey said in a statement on Friday. “We were happy to assist the city of Woodruff with a prayer policy that can be followed with confidence.”
The Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF), a non-profit organization that advocates the "separation of church and state," sent two letters to Mayor Burnett prior to the adoption of the new prayer policy ast week after receiving complaints from Woodruff residents about the recitation of prayers at council meetings as well as religious symbols on the city’s seal.
“The citizens of Woodruff and the council members themselves can organize and pray and express themselves and worship in ways that they see fit,” FFRF staff attorney Patrick Elliott told CNSNews.com. “We just think that the best policy is for government meetings and government business to refrain from taking on divine matters, and should focus on city matters.”
A complaint submitted on the FFRF Web site alleges that council member Mattie Norman invoked the name of Jesus Christ several times in a prayer. The FFRF also asked the Woodruff City Council to discontinue prayer at council meetings, and “immediately remove the Latin cross and word ‘church’ from its official city seal.”
In one letter to Mayor Burnett, FFRF attorney Patrick Elliott said that government prayer is unnecessary, inappropriate, and divisive. He also said that the city council is “inappropriately imposing its Christian religious beliefs on the citizens of Woodruff.”
During a June 28 city council meeting, Mayor Burnett told the audience, “This platform will not be used to try to prosletize, or try to make you believe something, or unduly influence you in any shape, form, or fashion.” The mayor said that if people would be offended by an opening prayer, they could come to the meeting “fashionably late.”
The Alliance Defense Fund intervened after the FFRF’s initial letter to the Woodruff City Council, offering free legal assistance and a sample policy that the city could adopt to legalize council prayers.
“We sent them a letter, and then we went and met with them in person and explained to them what the law was, what the law permitted, what it didn’t … and then provided them a proposed model policy that they could adopt,” ADF attorney Brett Harvey told CNSNews.com. “They looked at it, reviewed it, and adopted a policy substantially like we recommended.”
The new policy removes the prayer from the council agenda, specifies that a prayer will take place before the gavel sounds to officially start the meeting, and indicates that no member of the public attending the meeting, or any elected official, will be required to participate in the prayer.
The policy also requires the city to invite the leaders of every religious establishment in the city to lead the council prayers.
The policy does offer a disclaimer stating, “Any invocation that may be offered before the official start of the Council meeting shall be the voluntary offering of a private citizen, to and for the benefit of the Council. The views or beliefs expressed by the invocation speaker have not been previously reviewed or approved by the Council and do not represent the religious beliefs or views of the Council in part or as a whole.”
The issue of the city’s symbol is separate from the issue of invoking prayer, according to Harvey.
“It involves whether or not cities are permitted to recognize the heritage in their community,” Harvey told CNSNews.com. “The City of Woodruff, and I found this out, the entire city started because there was a church there. So having the cross is part of the founding of the city, and the city doesn’t have to deny that or ignore it simply because someone is offended by it.”
According to the City of Woodruff’s Web site, “The earliest history of this area begins with the membership of ‘The Church of Christ on Jamey's Creek’ dated September 18, 1787.
But, according to Elliott, the inclusion of the cross and the word “church” on the seal violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment and, “Any claims of historical significance to the Latin cross and the words ‘Church’ on the Woodruff City seal do not relieve the City of its constitutional obligations.”
Both the FFRF and the ADF believe that the courts are on their side. ADF’s Harvey told CNSNews.com: “We certainly read the law differently.”
Elliott said that the FFRF will wait and see how the policy plays out in Woodruff before deciding to take any legal action. Should FFRF attorneys decide to file against the city, Harvey told CNSNews.com that the Alliance Defense Fund is prepared to defend the City of Woodruff, free of charge.
Other S.C. Councils Also Warned About Prayer
The city council of Aiken, and the county council of Spartanburg, S.C., also received letters from the Freedom From Religion Foundation to halt all prayers at meetings, and received letters from the Alliance Defense Fund offering support.
Harvey told CNSNews.com that he met with the city attorney for the City of Aiken, and provided them with a policy. Harvey said that the Aiken City Council decided to keep praying, but that one of the issues the city is still working through is whether or not they will mandate that prayers be non-sectarian.
The Spartanburg County Council concluded that they will formalize a policy after meeting with ADF attorneys. The county will have prayers led by a chaplain who is free to pray consistent with the dictates of his own conscience.
The county council will not implement a mandate for non-sectarian prayers, according to Harvey. The ADF attorneys informed the county council that they did not need to change their policy, but that they should formalize a policy in writing where none existed before.