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Attorney suggests limiting prayers

The county attorney says the commission should open meetings with a neutral invocation, avoiding church-state separation issues.

By BRIDGET HALL GRUMET
Published October 4, 2003

NEW PORT RICHEY - The Pasco County Commission has been living on a prayer - three prayers, actually, used alternately at the start of each commission meeting. Two invoke the "Heavenly Father," while the third opens with "O, Merciful Creator."

The clerk of courts reads one of the prayers. Everyone recites the Pledge of Allegiance. Then it's down to business.

After reviewing the prayers and church-state case law, however, County Attorney Bob Sumner is recommending the county stop using both "Heavenly Father" prayers to avoid any appearance of government-backed religious beliefs.

The first prayer includes a reference to "your Son, our Savior, Jesus Christ," which "may be perceived as conveying a message that the (County Commission) is a Christian body and thus unconstitutionally advancing religious belief," Sumner wrote in a Sept. 25 memo to commissioners.

Although the second prayer calls on "Almighty God," Sumner said it does not refer to a specific religious denomination.

But just to be safe, he said, if commissioners want to keep an invocation, they should stick to the "Merciful Creator" prayer. It "appears least likely to be construed as proselytizing or advancing any one, or ... disparaging any other, faith or belief," Sumner wrote.

The commission will hear Sumner's findings Tuesday and decide how to handle the opening prayer. The meeting starts at 1:30 p.m. at the Historic Courthouse in Dade City.

Sumner reviewed the prayers after receiving a written complaint from Dick Wilson, a Hudson resident who said religious prayers have no place at government meetings. Wilson wrote a similar letter that ran Sept. 17 in the Pasco Times.

"There are approximately 14-million nonbelievers in this country, and they're not taken into account at all," Wilson, 61, a lifelong atheist, told the Times on Friday.

"My wife is Catholic, my friends are Christian. There's nothing wrong with that," Wilson added. "But when you go to a government building, you don't expect to be prayed to or asked to pray. You're there to do business."

But the U.S. Supreme Court has allowed public officials to open meetings with "nonsectarian prayers," or prayers that do not promote a specific belief or congregation, Sumner wrote in his memo.

"The opening of sessions of legislative and other deliberative public bodies with prayer is deeply embedded in the history and tradition of this country," the Supreme Court ruled in the 1983 case Marsh vs. Chambers.

A California court later drew the line at prayers with references to Jesus Christ, saying it was "an explicit invocation of a particular religious belief."

Wilson said he was glad Pasco officials are reconsidering the prayers they use. But he urged them to drop the invocation altogether.

"It's still religion," he said. "You're still asking for help from up above. I don't think it's necessary."

- Bridget Hall Grumet covers Pasco County government. She can be reached in west Pasco at 869-6244, or toll-free at 1-800-333-7505, ext. 6244. Her e-mail address is hall@sptimes.com

[Last modified October 4, 2003, 02:04:40]


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