Mayor calls for pre-meeting prayer
The agenda for last week’s Madison City Council meeting referenced "open, representative, ethical, efficient, properly informed, cohesive city government." Then it said "Mayor and council meetings: open with prayer," and the representative, efficient, and cohesive went out the window.
When Mayor Tom DuPree announced at the council retreat last week his desire to start future city council meetings with a prayer, council members were electrified. But they were not united.
"I think we’re inviting litigation," said Council member Michael Naples. "There’ve been a lot of cases of lawsuits over this matter, and I’m not for this…I know the county commissioners [open meetings with a prayer], but they have a tradition of doing that over the years, and some courts have upheld cases in those instances. Why would we start now?" Naples asked.
"Because I believe it," said DuPree.
Council member Barry Lurey made suggested several compromises, none of which were acknowledged by the mayor. Lurey suggested that the meeting begin five minutes earlier for members who wanted a prayer; he suggested that council members each visit their own church before coming to council meetings. He also suggested a moment of silence to open each council meeting, in which each council member could pray his own prayer.
"I cannot hide my faith under a pillow," said DuPree. "I cannot."
"This issue has troubled me, because I don’t want to be disrespectful to anybody’s faith," said DuPree. "I’ve read extensively on this subject…this country was founded on the Christian faith…"
DuPree did not get to finish his sentence as Naples and Lurey both responded with alacrity.
"This country was founded on Judeo-Christian doctrine," said Naples.
But DuPree was unfazed. "I’m just reporting what I’ve learned, and what I’m compelled to do is open my activities with a prayer," he said.
"I don’t see where opening with a prayer is going to make this a more cohesive city government," said Lurey.
"Mr. Mayor, I hear you say that you are going to pray…" said Naples.
"I’m going to give careful consideration to what you’ve said," said DuPree.
Council member Fred Perriman gave his opinion. "I think we should pray," he said. "Maybe those who don’t want to be present [to pray] could be excused."
Lurey then described for the members a court case that he had discovered in which a city council in Great Falls, South Carolina, which prayed before meetings, was successfully sued by a Wiccan who objected to their practice.
"We don’t want to open ourselves up to lawsuits," said Lurey, who again advocated a minute of silence before meetings. "In my congregation, there are many times when we stop and pray in silence," he said.
Naples still felt that council members could pray before they arrived in the meeting room. "There’s nothing precluding anyone from pulling up to the city council, shutting off the engine, and saying their own prayer before coming into the meeting," he said.
DuPree disagreed that the council was on shaky legal grounds in instituting prayer.
"Our constitution promises freedom of religion, not freedom from religion," said DuPree. "I think we’re on excellent legal grounds…I’ll give each of your opinions careful consideration, and I’ll let you know what I think."