SALISBURY — Debate over the inclusion of the Lord’s Prayer before Salisbury City Council meetings settled on a tentative compromise Monday that still left one elected official dissatisfied.
After nearly an hour of discussion, the majority of the council agreed that, in place of the traditional Lord’s Prayer recited before the Pledge of Allegiance at every meeting, a moment of “silent invocation” would be used instead.
“There are a lot of nuances to this whole discussion,” said Council President Terry Cohen, who opened the floor to suggestions from her fellow councilors and the city administration on what could be done to keep things comfortable and religiously unbiased for any members of the public who attended meetings.
There were a number of proposals, but the two frontrunners were a moment of silence or a rotating schedule that would allow all faiths a chance to pray before a meeting.
This second option was advocated by Councilwoman Eugenie Shields.
“We need prayer all the time,” she told the assembly.
Shields offered the opinion that there were too many benefits in religion to take prayer out of government.
“The country needs prayer,” asserted Shields. “I’m very serious about this.”
However, Shields recognized that there are a wide variety of faiths and denominations within the community and that some might not feel comfortable with an invocation as religiously specific as the Lord’s Prayer. Her solution would be to establish a prayer rotation with a new representative delivering the litany before every meeting.
“We should contact every faith in our community,” said Shields, who added that her feelings on the issue were strong enough that she would enter meetings after the Pledge of Allegiance if the rest of the council decided to remove prayer.
Shields was dismissive of the other leading option, a moment of silence, remarking that there was a large gap between verbal prayer and silent reflection.
“If you have a moment of silence … you could be thinking about your groceries,” she said.
However, the rest of Shields colleagues didn’t have the same reservations.
“For me, prayer is very private,” said Councilwoman Laura Mitchell, expressing a worry that having any prayer before meetings would almost certainly always leave someone singled out and excluded, even if the denomination rotated each time.
Mitchell also pointed out that “some faiths are opposed to other faiths” and that the religious issue was potentially volatile, especially when mixed with government. The solution she endorsed was a moment of silence because, in her opinion, it allowed people to best prepare for a meeting in whatever way they saw fit. Whether that moment of silence meant saying a prayer or going over a grocery list, she said that was a personal choice and one best left to individuals.
“We could end up walking a fine line of censorship,” said Mitchell, after learning that the speakers for each faith would have to follow certain guidelines with their prayers.
“Who’s going to screen that?” she asked.
“It’s a very charged issue,” agreed Councilwoman Deborah Campbell. “Personally, if there was a moment of silence I’d probably be saying the Lord’s Prayer to myself.”
But Campbell also agreed that the Lord’s Prayer wasn’t a perfect representation of the community and endorsed the idea of a moment of silence.
Several members of the public weighed in and support was shown for both sides.
“I agree that prayer is important,” said Kay Gibson, who went on to say that it was also personal and that a moment of silence was the most fair option.
Craig Wilson, a local minister, spoke out about the basic benefits of verbal prayer of any denomination.
“I think prayer is a sign of respect,” he told the council.
Both Mayor Jim Ireton and Councilman Tim Spies stated that they favored a moment of silence over a rotating prayer schedule.
“I think my connection with God is a personal one,” said Spies.
The council looked to other municipalities for an example. Of the 30 that responded to inquiries, nine had some kind of prayer before a meeting, while seven had a moment of silence. The remaining 14 had neither.
Shields made one last entreaty to her colleagues before a decision was made.
‘I’m a firm believer in prayer,” she told them. “I’m voting for prayer. When a person’s silent, you don’t always know what they’re thinking.”
Despite her efforts, the rest of the council voted to begin meetings with a moment of silence instead of a prayer.
The consensus was that such a moment was constitutional and showed no bias towards those who practiced religion of any kind or those who practiced no religion at all.