By Tom Davidson
Herald Staff Writer
The latest salvo from group of self-described “free-thinkers” in their war against religious expression in the public sphere was fired last month at Greenville Council.
Freedom From Religion Foundation’s staff attorney Rebecca Markert sent council President Brian W. Shipley a letter asking borough officials to end a long-standing practice of opening monthly council meetings with prayers led by members of the Lakeland Ministerial Association.
Markert said she was acting on a complaint from a “local person” whom she wouldn’t identify.
The prayers violate the First Amendment, Markert said.
The letter didn’t strike fear in the heart of Shipley or other council members.
The prayers have began the meetings “as long as anyone can remember,” and have never been met with a complaint, Shipley said.
“We make the time available, but we don’t have any involvement with who speaks or why,” Shipley said.
The prayers will continue, he said.
Other council members agreed the complaint from the Madison, Wisc.-based organization wasn’t reason enough to end the prayers.
“I am perfectly OK with prayer at meetings,” Councilman Anthony D’Alfonso said. “I think it’s a long-standing tradition that should be honored.”
The prayers, led by a rotating slate of clergy who are almost entirely Christian, “provide guidance and blessings to council and the community,” D’Alfonso said.
“I don’t see it at an issue that should be addressed,” he said.
The complaint “came as quite a surprise,” D’Alfonso said.
Councilman Ted Jones called the complaint “pretty crazy.”
“I think it’s pretty stupid,” Jones said. “I don’t think we should do anything.”
The complaint is one of many the group sends out, Markert said.
In 2012, the foundation sent more than 1,000 letters addressed to groups they believe are violating the separation of church and state.
Last year, the group saw success locally when they got Grove City School Board to change its prayer policy to a moment of silence.
But prayer before a school board meeting and a borough council meeting differ in their impact, church-state expert Charles Haynes of the Freedom Forum’s Religious Freedom Education Project, said.
“This is one of the murky things,” that are debated nationally, Haynes said.
He noted that “legislative prayers” can be constitutional if they are ecumenical and don’t advocate a specific doctrine.
Prayers at school board meetings are considered taboo because even during the course of legislating school business, school boards are in the business of education, which makes it a “school prayer issue” which the Supreme Court has found is unconstitutional.
Both pro- and anti-prayer groups have a rich history in American life, Thiel College religion professor Dan Eppley said.
“Puritans came to America to escape an established religion,” Eppley said.
But this is also the same country with “In God We Trust” on its money and that pledges allegiance to a flag “under God,” he said.
“This is yet one more chapter in a very, very long narrative in which both sides can claim” to be grounded in American values, Eppley said.
For now, the prayers will remain at Greenville council meetings.
The Freedom From Religion Foundation generally gives parties it sends complaint letters to about a month to address the concerns.
Markert said she didn’t know if the group would pursue the matter of prayer in Greenville in court.
“We wait to hear back from the council and discuss what the local complainant thinks the next action should be,” she said.