Prayer issue divides council
Mayor Tom DuPree opened the Madison City Council meeting Monday with a prayer, despite the recent requests of other council members to either not begin the practice or open with a minute of silence.
Immediately preceding the 5:30 p.m. call to order, DuPree rose and asked the Reverend Hoke Smith of Calvary Baptist Church to pray over the meeting; DuPree asked all of those who would like to stand and pray for local government, also.
About half of the 60 people present in the room stood for the invocation.
By 10:30 p.m., as the meeting was winding down and the agenda called for public comment, Smith rose again to address the remaining 20 or so people in the room.
Smith was distressed by the debate about prayer that had taken place previously in the meeting.
"I thought I’d died and gone to hell, and the devil said, ‘You’re not going to pray down here,’" said Smith. "Then I looked over to the side and I saw Barry Lurey, a Jew, down here in Hell. Looked and I seen [sic] a Catholic down here, and I had to shake myself."
Council member Barry Lurey spoke out in protest.
"That’s not a very appropriate remark," said Lurey. "I was not going to Hell–you may think I was, but I’m not."
"Mr. Smith has the floor," said DuPree.
"You should be defending your councilmen," said Lurey to DuPree, visibly upset.
"And I will, as soon as Mr. Smith is finished," said DuPree.
Smith was allowed to finish his comments, and the he and Lurey exchanged a few more words.
"I apologize if I offended anybody," said Smith.
"You certainly offended me," said Lurey.
"Well, I was offended, too," said Smith.
"I absolutely cannot believe that you said you saw me in Hell," said Lurey. "That’s a very serious offense…"
"That’s the way that I feel, and I believe we all have a right to our opinion…"
"I love God as much as you do," said Lurey.
"Thank you," said Smith, as he returned to his seat.
Earlier in the council meeting, there was extensive debate regarding the appropriateness of opening a public meeting with a benediction. After Smith’s opening prayer was completed without incident, Council Member Michael Naples almost immediately requested that a discussion of the proceedings be added to the agenda.
"I’d like to know, by what authority can the mayor ask someone to open the meeting with a prayer?" asked Naples, noting that the invocation was not on the agenda, nor did the mayor ask for a motion to add the prayer to the agenda. DuPree replied that he believed that he had the power, as presiding officer, to open the meeting as he saw fit. DuPree also called attention to the fact that the prayer was requested before the actual call to order.
"When I conduct these meetings, as presiding officer, I will open with a prayer," said DuPree.
Naples subsequently moved that the mayor "cease and desist" in his invocations until such a time as the council approved a motion allowing the mayor to pray before meetings, or alternatively, that the mayor move the prayer outside the meeting building. Naples also included in his motion a notification that the mayor should personally bear the cost of any litigation stemming from his decision to begin city meetings with a prayer.
That motion died for lack of a second. However, Naples immediately proposed a second motion, essentially requiring only that the mayor bear any and all litigation costs resulting from the new calls to prayer.
"I’ll second that motion," said council member Barry Lurey.
In the discussion surrounding the motion, council member Fred Perriman, who identified himself as a minister, was moved to tears.
"It pricks my heart, when we can’t come together as people under the nation of God," said Perriman. "I think we have a great mayor, a man who believes in God…we need prayer, to have a peaceful city."
Naples disagreed with the idea that the city had to begin with prayer in order to be effective.
"I certainly have nothing against prayer," he said. "I said before, there is nothing to stop anyone from praying in his car before the council meeting begins…I believe that every member of this council is guided by his religion." Naples then cited Matthew 6:5-13 from the Bible, in which Jesus exhorts those around him, "…do not be like the hypocrites…when you pray, go into your room."
"This is a rhetorical question, but how do you reconcile the words of Jesus, who is your savior, and mine too,…with [public prayer]?" asked Naples. "These public shows of religiosity do not always show what is in a man’s heart."
Naples talked about the concept that the majority is not always right.
"Most Americans claim to be Christians," he said. "But majority rule is not always right," he said, pointing to the Jim Crow laws that were once upheld by a majority of citizens in this region.
Naples pointed out that he represents Christians in Madison, but also four people practicing Hinduism, several Jews, and at least one person practicing Islam.
"We do not need the strife that a violation of the separation between church and state [will bring]," said Naples.
Council member Lurey concurred with Naples on many points, invoking the words of James Madison, who wrote about the religious turmoil that the founding fathers had been trying to escape, the "ceaseless strife that has soaked the soil with blood."
"This city council is about the people of the city of Madison," said Lurey. " And we need to include everyone."
DuPree had a chance to respond to Naples’ and Lurey’s comments, he said that Naples had described Matthew 6:5-13 "out of context."
"When Christ was speaking about the hypocrites…and I don’t remember the names or the towns, but I certainly remember the story," said DuPree, "He found a group of church leaders that felt that they could live however they wanted to if they only prayed…that’s when he used those words," said DuPree. "They have to be put in context."
DuPree also cited the First Amendment, which guarantees free speech, and noted that the separation of church and state is not referred to in the United States Constitution or its amendments. He then made note of the fact that the constitution of all fifty states made references God.
"I’m troubled by your need to segregate out faith from our government," said DuPree, to Naples. "I believe that we as a people have gone too far away from the Almighty…and as long as I sit in this chair…I will open…with prayer," he concluded.
Naples responded, "It’s rather magnanimous of you to take this on in this litigious society, [when the courts] have [ruled] against prayer…all it takes is one dissenter to be affronted by what’s happening here, and we’re in court."
Naples also voiced his disapproval of what he views as the mayor’s continual focus on issues that are not the everyday business of the city.
"Since we began in January, it been about you and voting, you and the mayor pro tem, you and prayer…let’s get to the city’s business!" said Naples, to applause from some in the crowd.
In the end, Naples’ motion requiring the mayor to personally fund any litigation costs stemming from the inclusion of prayer in the city council meeting passed, 3-2. Naples, Lurey, and council member Whitey Hunt voted in favor of the motion; Perriman and council member Rick Blanton were opposed.