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Published: Monday, 1/31/2005

Swanton council may add prayers

BY JANET ROMAKER
BLADE STAFF WRITER

SWANTON - Swanton officials are considering adding prayer to the start of village council sessions.

People have different religious beliefs, and the prayers should not offend anyone, Mayor Tandy Grubbs said. "We are looking into a prayer that we can use," he said, noting that "Congress regularly opens its sessions with prayers."

After Councilman Bob Gill introduced the idea during a recent meeting, Mayor Grubbs said he'd discuss it with Village Administrator Jon Gochenour. The council recites the Pledge of Allegiance before its meetings.

Jeff Gamso, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio, said Swanton officials "should be careful" about choosing a prayer.

It's "clearly unconstitutional" for a municipal council to open its sessions with the Lord's Prayer, he said. Christians consider the prayer from the New Testament one of the mainstays of their faith. The Establishment Clause of the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution prevents governments from supporting or endorsing a particular religion, or prohibiting its free exercise.

In Fulton County, prayers have been part of the county commissioners' meetings for several years, said Commissioner Jack Graf, who typically offers the prayers. The practice hasn't triggered any controversy locally.

"I have never had a complaint that I know of," he said.

But complaints are not the issue, Mr. Gamso said.

"Obeying the Constitution is an obligation regardless of whether any people in the community complain," he said.

An ecumenical prayer or a moment of silence are a tradition at some area public meetings.

Council in Delta, Ohio, introduced prayers at its meetings a couple of years ago, said Village Administrator Gary Baker. Area ministers sometimes visit council meetings and say prayers that are not religion specific, he said.

In Clyde, Ohio, it is a long-standing practice for the city council to recite the Lord's Prayer at the opening of its sessions. It briefly abandoned the practice last fall after the ACLU raised questions about it, but has since reinstated the prayer.

"They felt people in the community had no objections. No one had come forth and objected. No one had complained," City Manager Daniel E. Weaver said.

The ACLU's reaction to Clyde's return to the Lord's Prayer is "to tell them to knock it off," Mr. Gamso said. Beyond that, "We would have to look into it," he said.

A summer, 2004, decision from the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals that covers five southern states dealt with a similar situation. The council of a South Carolina town opened its meetings by offering a prayer in Christ's name. A non-Christian objected, requested an alternative prayer, and eventually sued in 2001 after her request was denied.

In its conclusion, the court wrote that a legislative body does not have "license to advance its own religious views in preference to all others. The First Amendment bars such official preference for one religion and corresponding discrimination against all others."

Contact Janet Romaker at: jromaker@theblade.com or 419-724-6006.



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