Originally created 10/02/00

Meetings still open in prayer



It's become old hat for Doug Batchelor: Every two weeks, Columbia County's attorney scribbles a prayer on a yellow legal pad and reads it to open the county commission meeting.

"When it started, I led the prayer and the Pledge of Allegiance," said Mr. Batchelor, a partner in Hull, Towill, Norman, Barrett & Salley law firm, which has represented the county for nearly a decade.

Now, his prayers are beginning to garner attention. Now, he is called on to lead prayers at family dinners. He has gotten the nickname "The Chaplain" from friends. And some people attending a December commission meeting even asked for a copy of a prayer: a rhyming verse for Christmas.

"I do sort of listen out and watch for prayers that other people give that I steal," he said. "I usually tell them. The nuns at St. Joseph, who I also represent, they give me a number (of ideas)."

And in nearly 10 years, he's heard no complaints about the commissioners opening their meetings with a prayer. As the battle over prayer at school athletic events rages in South Carolina, opening a government meeting - from the city councils to the school boards - with an invocation is an accepted practice in the Bible Belt.

"I haven't heard any complaints," said Aiken County Council Chairman Ronnie Young, who said his predecessor prayed and he just kept that part of the meeting going. "I don't know if it is tradition or not; it's just something we do."

But just because people have not complained doesn't mean political praying is all right in the community, said Robert Tsia, an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union of Georgia.

"When a government official says `Gee, we've never gotten a complaint, so we are going to keep on doing it,' it's not a very good argument because these are public meetings," he said. "It may happen one day that someone goes there and becomes extremely disturbed by what they see and hear and what they are asked to participate in."

It's not up to politicians to lead people to God, even if it's only during a prayer to open a meeting, Mr. Tsia said.

"We certainly believe that (opening a meeting with a prayer) is improper," he said. "We know it happens in some places from time to time. It really depends on how it is being done, and it really depends on just how it is being done and what the circumstances are and whether you get someone who complains."

South Carolina's attorney general says it's OK for leaders to ask for help from above before a meeting. Last month, Charlie Condon said it's all right for school boards, city councils, county commissions - even the state Legislature - to open meetings with a word of prayer.

"Since time immemorial, public bodies ... have opened their meetings with prayer," he said in a news release about the decision.

That ruling came three months after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled praying over a public address system before a football game is unconstitutional. However, prayer in the locker room or spontaneous prayers in the stands are all right.

Mr. Condon is pushing for support of the Thurmond Amendment to the U.S. Constitution - which would restore voluntary prayer during school hours or before sporting events.

"We still have a chance to snatch victory from the Supreme Court's illogical and harmful ruling," Mr. Condon said.

But don't expect a similar opinion from Georgia's attorney general. That's an issue left to local governments, said Daryl Robinson, deputy counsel for Georgia Attorney General Thurbert Baker.

"For example, if a county commission was to ask if they could open their meetings with prayer, we wouldn't answer that," he said. "We try not to inject ourselves between that local government agency and attorney relationship."

In Aiken County, Councilman Willar Hightower usually leads the prayer.

"Prayer has been a part of the county council ever since its existence," he said. "It's like the Pledge of Allegiance to the flag.

"I think it is very appropriate. Of course, that is based a whole lot on my beliefs," said Mr. Hightower, a deacon at Friendship Baptist Church in Aiken. "All people have a need for a god. They are born with that need. Some search their whole life and never find their god."

It is calling on that higher power that has kept prayer at the beginning of Augusta's meetings.

"It's a good practice to recognize we are just mortals here in government," said Augusta Mayor Bob Young, who also attributed the prayer to council and commission tradition. "We have to look for guidance from a supreme being."

Mr. Young said he has never heard complaints about the prayers. He never heard complaints about the Richmond County Superior Court seal, either - until the Georgia branch of the ACLU sued over it. ACLU officials say the seal depicts the Ten Commandments.

"The average person would see it as the Ten Commandments, and the courts around the country have consistently said the state can't use religious imagery, symbolism or otherwise mix church and state in its affairs," the ACLU's Mr. Tsai said.

Mr. Young said the seal is used still - it was stamped on $90 million in water and sewer bonds issued earlier this month.

"Maybe those will be collector items one day," Mr. Young said.

The ACLU also has challenged displaying the Ten Commandments at Brunswick City Hall and the Lumpkin County Board of Education's vote to display a poster with the words "In God We Trust" in every classroom in the county as part of the Respect for the Creator curriculum.

Meanwhile, Mr. Batchelor can keep up his work as "chaplain" - barring the county's choosing another legal firm.

"I always consider my decision based on what my Bible tells me and what my Ten Commandments tell me," said Jim Whitehead, who serves as vice chairman of the Columbia County Commission. "And I will never, ever consider anything else that I don't do that. I'm not trying to offend anybody. I'm just saying that's a part of my life and the way I govern my decisions, and I am not going to consider changing it."

Reach Jason B. Smith at (706) 868-1222.