Prayer at public meetings faces suits
Marc Valero | Highlands TodaySEBRING - Before the business at hand at government and school board meetings in Highlands County and often nationwide, a brief prayer is offered before the Pledge of Allegiance.
Published: December 5, 2012
Published: December 5, 2012
But citizens are increasingly taking issue with these prayers, some of which have been in place for decades. At least five lawsuits around the country — in Florida, California, Missouri, New York, and Tennessee — are actively challenging pre-meeting prayers.
Lawyers on both sides say there is a new complaint almost weekly, though they don't always end up in court. When they do, it seems even courts are struggling to draw the line over the acceptable ways to pray.
Sebring Mayor George Hensley said, "We are certainly aware of the situation about having prayer before our meetings, and I usually am the one that is asked to offer that prayer.
"I am sure we are not going to try to get into a pending lawsuit that might come our way relating to that. There are some ways we can fix that. We will consult with our attorney and have some commentary with him about that to see what steps we might take."
County Attorney Ross Macbeth noted that the Supreme Court has previously found that it doesn't violate the Constitution to have prayer at some types of public meetings.
"I believe Congressional sessions are opened with a prayer," he said.
The current lawsuits will likely be unsuccessful, but people can litigate anything, Macbeth said. "I don't think it violates the Constitution."
Lake Placid Town Attorney Bert Harris, III, said he was never called upon to form an opinion on the issue and would prefer not to weigh in on it.
"It's clearly within the jurisdiction of the council and not the lawyer," he said.
Highlands County School Board Attorney John McClure also declined to comment on the issue.
"The bottom line is the school board is elected to do that, and that's what they do," he said.
Former school board member J. Ned Hancock offered the prayer many times to start a school board meeting during his 16 years on the board.
"I can't imagine anyone being offended by a prayer being before a public meeting or football game or a sporting event or anything like that," he said.
He is not familiar with the lawsuits, but he knew some groups were contemplating legal action, Hancock said.
"I just feel sorry for the people who feel they need to bring those lawsuits," he said. "I think it was what our country was founded on, and it's something that ought to be important in everyone's life."
Several atheist activist organizations are suing cities nationwide, according to a Christian News Network report. Lakeland officials are continuing a legal battle over prayers during city commission meetings, which has now made its way to the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals after a federal district court ruled that the prayers were constitutional.
The group Atheists of Florida claims that the prayers are discriminatory, the report states. They are asking the court to have the prayers replaced with a moment of silence.
For now, Lakeland officials are issuing a disclaimer prior to the prayers that states that the invocation is voluntary and not government-sponsored.
In 1983, the U.S. Supreme Court approved prayer before legislative meetings, saying prayers don't violate the First Amendment's so-called Establishment Clause, which prohibits the government from favoring one religion over another. But the case didn't set any boundaries on those prayers.
Some lawyers and lawmakers believe it's only a matter of time before the Supreme Court will weigh in to resolve the differences. The court has previously declined to take on the issue, but lawyers in a New York case plan to ask the justices this month to revisit it.