Originally created 12/01/05

The policy of prayer



AIKEN - The North Augusta City Council typically opens all of its meetings with an invocation.

When the council started an October meeting with a public hearing about the 2006 budget proposal, however, city resident Bill Griffin did not use the public comment time to ask about expenditures. He asked Mayor Lark Jones whether he had forgotten the prayer.

The mayor assured Mr. Griffin, who attends nearly every city council meeting, that once the public hearing was finished, the regular meeting would begin with an invocation.

"I thought any time was a good time to pray," Mr. Griffin said.

Apparently, many elected officials agree.

U.S. Rep. Gresham Barrett, R-S.C., recently announced plans to introduce the Public Prayer Protection Act to assure the right of elected and appointed officials to express their religious beliefs through public prayer.

The proposed legislation also says all "establishment clause" cases involving prayer should be decided by state rather than federal courts. The clause in the U.S. Constitution's First Amendment prohibits giving one religion preference over another.

Mr. Jones, who sometimes leads the prayers, said the city council has tried to invite ministers from every church in the community to give the invocation.

"If there were Jewish synagogues, Islamic mosques, Buddhist temples in North Augusta, I would invite their leader to render an invocation," he said in an e-mail.

Aiken County Councilman Willar Hightower, who gives the invocation at county council meetings, said that two years ago the county attorney instructed him to refrain from praying to a specific deity.

Those instructions followed a 2003 court case in which U.S. District Court Judge Cameron Currie ruled that the town of Great Falls, S.C., could not invoke the name of a particular deity associated with any one faith, in this case Jesus, at its council meetings.

In June, the U.S. Supreme Court denied a petition by Great Falls to overturn a 4th Circuit Court of Appeals decision that upheld the lower court ruling.

Mr. Hightower said he considered giving up the invocation at the county council meetings after the 2003 decision.

However, he said, "I think public officials should be able to pray their prayer to their god."

Lena Bonner, the Augusta clerk of commission, said the city calls on ministers from the community to give the invocation at its commissioners' meetings.

"As a Christian, I think it's important that we invoke God's presence in the meetings for guidance," Ms. Bonner said.

Ron Cross, the Columbia County Commission chairman, said the county begins all its committee and commission meetings with prayer.

"We feel like the county was founded on those principles, and we just continue that tradition," he said.

He said the commissioners and Columbia County ministers take turns giving the invocation. He said 99 percent of the prayers are Christian.

"We've never gotten any complaints," Mr. Cross said. "I think we'd get complaints if we didn't do it."

Aiken Mayor Fred Cavanaugh said he could recall only one time when someone complained to him about a prayer.

"People can get up and go out of the chambers if it offends them," he said.

Mr. Cavanaugh, who rotates giving the invocation with City Manager Roger LeDuc and Councilwoman Lessie Price, said they do not pray "in Jesus' name," in accordance with the law. He said that was a reasonable request.

"I just hope the law doesn't completely cut (prayer) out at some point," he said.

Even though local officials supported public prayer, some were less emphatic about legislating that right.

"I regret the legislation is necessary, appreciate Gresham Barrett's concern, but as an attorney recognize any such legislation will face a quick constitutional challenge," Mr. Jones said in his e-mail.

Mr. Hightower said he did not want the government to dictate "what we should and should not do" regarding religious matters.

"Any time a politician gets up and starts talking about God, I stop listening to it," he said. "They're using something to their political benefit and not out of sincerity."

Reach Betsy Gilliland at (803) 648-1395, ext. 113, or betsy.gilliland@augustachronicle.com.

What's Next:

U.S. Rep. Gresham Barrett, R-S.C., said he will introduce the Public Prayer Protection Act to ensure the right of elected and appointed officials to express their religious beliefs through public prayer. He said he is still working to drum up support and has not set a timetable for the measure to be introduced.