Council replaces prayer with secular message

A West Virginia city council has replaced a routine prayer before meetings with a secular alternative following a complaint from FFRF.

A concerned Wheeling citizen reported to FFRF that each Wheeling City Council meeting began with a prayer. These prayers were reportedly led by City Council members, except one led by an outside minister.

FFRF wrote to Wheeling City Council drawing attention to the unconstitutionality of these invocations, since this amounts to an illegal endorsement of religion. Fourth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals precedent prohibits government-led prayer of the sort that was practiced at Wheeling City Council meetings, FFRF pointed out.

“Prayer at government meetings is unnecessary, inappropriate and divisive and the best solution is to discontinue invocations altogether,” FFRF Legal Fellow Brendan Johnson wrote to Wheeling Mayor Glenn F. Elliott Jr. “Council members are, of course, free to pray privately or to worship on their own time in their own way, but they should not worship on taxpayers’ time. The prayers exclude the 26 percent of Americans who are not religious.”

FFRF urged the City Council to refrain from starting meetings with prayer in order to demonstrate its respect for the diverse range of religious and nonreligious citizens living in Wheeling.

“We urge you to concentrate on civil matters and leave religion to the private conscience of each individual by ending the practice of hosting prayers at your meetings,” Johnson concluded.

On Jan. 30, the council heeded FFRF’s suggestion and removed the religious references in the invocation.

According to local news, “Wheeling City Council will shift to secular prayers before opening meetings.” At a recent meeting, one council member read a secular reflection before the meeting was called to order. Johnson also received confirmation from the city solicitor that the language of the invocation would not reference God moving forward.

“We commend the city council for taking seriously this recommendation,” FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor comments. “A local city body ought not to lend its taxpayer-funded time to religion by starting meetings with a sectarian prayer.”

Nevada district ceases prayer

As of Feb. 10, the Clark County School District in Las Vegas has discontinued the practice of beginning school board meetings with prayer after receiving an official complaint from FFRF.

FFRF was made aware that the Clark County School District Board of Trustees meetings began with prayer. For instance, one meeting in December began with students saying the Pledge of Allegiance, which was immediately followed by an invocation. The board asked everyone present, regardless of their religious beliefs or lack thereof, to “remain standing,” and introduced a preacher from the Messages of Faith Ministry to say the invocation. The prayer asked that the “children be trained up righteously,” meaning that they be trained as Christians.

It is beyond the scope of public school board to schedule or conduct prayer as part of its meetings, FFRF reminded the district. This practice violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.

“Board members are free to pray privately or to worship on their own time in their own way,” FFRF Staff Attorney Madeline Ziegler wrote in a letter to Clark County School District General Counsel Eleissa C. Lavelle. “The school board, however, cannot lend its power and prestige to religion, amounting to a governmental endorsement of religion which excludes the 24 percent of Americans who are nonreligious, including 38 percent of Americans born after 1987.”

FFRF litigated the most recent case striking down a school board prayer practice, in which the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals reaffirmed that Establishment Clause concerns are heightened in the context of public schools “because children and adolescents are just beginning to develop their own belief systems, and because they absorb the lessons of adults as to what beliefs are appropriate or right.” In the end, Chino Valley (Calif.) School District’s board paid out more than $280,000 in fees and costs. The 9th Circuit opinion is also binding on the Clark County School District.

The district’s legal counsel sent a letter of reply informing FFRF that the board of school trustees will no longer begin its meetings with an invocation. FFRF praises the district on its decision to cease official board prayers.

Wheeling, W. Va., seal.