SALISBURY — Whatever their feelings on prayer, the Salisbury City Council was at least able to agree that it should be up to future councils to decide if it’s part of official meetings or not.
During a work session last Monday, the council all supported the idea of removing prayer from the Rules of Order. The move doesn’t mean that there will no longer be prayer before meetings, however; only that an invocation won’t be an official part of the proceedings.
The decision is one that the council hopes will allow it to skirt possible constitutional infringements.
“I don’t see why we need to do that [opening prayer] while council is in session,” said Councilman Tim Spies.
By administering an invocation before the official start of a session, Spies pointed out that “we get out of the legality of it.” He worried that including a prayer as part of general ceremony might put Salisbury in contradiction with the Constitution’s rules against religion in government.
City Attorney Paul Wilber acknowledged that moving prayer out of the official rules of order would help protect the council. “It’s a small change,” said Wilber, “but probably a positive change, constitutionally.”
But having decided when a possible prayer might be heard left the council needing to decide what, if any, kind of invocation would be appropriate for meetings. Up until recently and for many years, the Lord’s Prayer was the default supplication given before each council session. However, a few weeks ago, the question of whether the traditional Christian offering might exclude non-Christian councilmembers and citizens in the audience was raised.
When asked if saying only the Lord’s Prayer before meetings was a risk, Wilber replied, “constitutionally speaking, yes.”
A number of other options have been tossed around since the issue arouse; originally, the council decided to open meetings with a moment of silence unless a more agreeable solution could be found. At last week’s meeting, the idea of setting up a prayer schedule to rotate different religious groups was again floated.
“One of the other options is to have a rotation,” said Council President Terry Cohen.
Cohen has mentioned the idea at previous meetings, but the associated risks made a moment of silence seem like a safer option at the time. Several members of the council pointed out they would be walking a thin line with a prayer rotation, since any invocation given should be non-denominational and non-deity specific. However, exactly who would draw up the guidelines for what was government appropriate prayer was unknown. Additionally, the council wasn’t sure how those guidelines could be enforced.
After further consideration, though, Cohen remarked that she was willing to further explore a prayer rotation.
“I’m pretty much open to everything,” she said.
“I have no opposition to trying it,” agreed Councilwoman Laura Mitchell.
Cohen reminded the council that the type of civic and community leaders that they might invite to lead prayer “tend to be mindful” of how delicate the religion-to-politics issue is and would likely set adequate guidelines upon themselves. Councilwoman Eugenie Shields also supported a prayer rotation, but felt that it would have been better to simply stick to the traditional Lord’s Prayer.
“Taking the Lord’s Prayer out of meetings was awful,” she said, adding later that the prayer removal was “the worst thing that ever happened to Salisbury.”
Shields view was that a moment of silence was not good enough, and that the council needed some “words of encouragement”.
Cohen agreed to further explore the possibility of setting up a prayer rotation.