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Cooler heads need to prevail when discussing invocations

By JEFF WEBB

© St. Petersburg Times, published May 19, 2000


Lord, help us.

(For the record, that was a figurative plea, not a prayer. And the name I invoked is a generic reference to the deity I believe is running the show up there and down here.)

As if there weren't enough important matters to keep us occupied, like the drought and loud music at Planet Bubba's and helping the Hubcap Guy, the Hernando County Commission may be about to immerse itself in a controversy that has been argued this decade more times than the guilt and innocence of O.J. Simpson and Bill Clinton combined.

Once again the time-honored tradition of verbalizing an invocation at the beginning of a government meeting has made the headlines. This time around, an anonymous caller complained about the practice of ministers praying "in the name of Jesus." For those who are unchurched, the cornerstone of Christians' faith is the belief that Jesus Christ is the son of God, that he rose from the dead after the Romans murdered him about 2000 years ago, and that one day he will descend from heaven to rule the Earth.

Most of the people in this country who profess a religion are Christians. That's one reason why so many are comfortable invoking Jesus' name when they pray in public. But other religions don't regard Jesus as any more than a historical, perhaps prophetic, figure. Still others don't recognize him at all. It is understandable that people who don't believe Jesus is the son of God would prefer their government not endorse Christianity as the unofficial religion.

Recognizing the need to keep church and state separate, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled a long time ago that prayer, and especially prayer to a specific deity, had no place in schools. Whether you agree with that decision is irrelevant. It's the law, and until it is changed we're obliged to live by it.

County Attorney Garth Coller knows that, and it is the reason he drafted a letter recently to the ministers who are occasionally invited to deliver the opening prayer at the commission meetings. He urged the clergy members, most of whom are Protestant Christians, to remember that government serves people with very diverse religious beliefs, and that the invocations should "not offend."

Sure enough, the first minister to say the prayer after the letter went out, ignored it and concluded his prayer with the phrase "in Jesus' name." So, here we are again, with rumors flying that the American Civil Liberties Union may insert itself in the debate, and that the fundamentalists are gearing up for a holy hoe-down.

This whole issue was debated by the commission in 1994, at which time the commission decided to allow ministers to offer prayers any way they saw fit, including praying in Jesus' name. The discussion then was focused and civil. It was a dialogue, not an argument. Until now, there have been no complaints, which probably means only that those who were offended chose to not voice their objections.

The School Board was less fortunate when this issue barged into its boardroom in 1993. The controversy began when Bob Flato, a board member who is Jewish, privately voiced an objection to the superintendent about ministers praying in the name of Jesus. Flato innocently suggested the prayers be non-sectarian. You would have thought he had kicked Billy Graham in the groin.

Hundreds of people stormed the board in protest, zealously arguing against the notion. Some even took it upon themselves to interpret the Holy Bible, claiming that God will not hear a prayer that is not offered in his son's name. I even remember one fellow who, in response to a suggestion that the prayer be changed to a moment of silence, said God won't hear a prayer that is not said aloud.

Flato narrowly lost his bid for re-election and this non-issue probably was the deciding factor. The School Board finally decided to do its own praying. Instead of using ministers, the board members now take turns leading the prayer. It's not ideal, but it settled the issue for a while.

I have always advocated observing a moment of silence as the best, and perhaps most effective, way to open a meeting. It gives everyone an opportunity to reflect in their own way. Elected officials and bureaucrats can ask for divine wisdom about how to spend our money, or they can start a shopping list. I don't care. I'm not going to judge them on who they pray to; it's their performance as a public servant that concerns me.

And, if a moment of silence is the standard for our school children, why should county commissioners or School Board members be any different?

In a February 1994 column I asked readers to join me in "a silent prayer that no one interprets (the board members') decisions as government advocating a particular religion. The argument is bound to resurface; it's just a matter of when and where."

Well, here we are again folks. Let's show a little tolerance and not let it get out of hand this time.

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