Church And State
Thu November 29, 2012
ACLU Warns Miami-Dade Commissioners Not To Approve Prayer Before Meetings
The Miami Dade County Commission will consider a policy next month that would allow prayer before every commission meeting.
For years, the commissioners have simply observed a moment of silence before meetings, which allowed people to pray or not pray.
However, at the urging of a conservative Christian group, the commissioners are moving to change that policy back to a few years ago when praying was allowed before meetings.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Florida promptly jumped in and is warning the Commission to not consider passing this new policy.
The ACLU of Florida's spokesman Baylor Johnson says the moment of silence currently in place is a much better policy and should not be changed.
"We felt that practice was respectful of the diversity in our community and it allowed individuals to engage in whatever religious practice they chose," Johnson says. "[It] was respectful and was less likely to make anyone member of our community feel uncomfortable in the commission meetings."
Baylor warns that these sorts of policies lead to lawsuits, because someone will inevitably feel discriminated.
But the Commissioners have come up with a somewhat costly plan to circumvent lawsuits.
Because expressions of faith in public meetings may turn off or offend some in the community, the proposal before the commission envisions rotating religious leaders of different faiths to give invocations. The plan does not address people who do not belong to a particular religion or do not believe in God, though no one on the board or in the audience will be required to participate.
There is a price tag: It will cost the county clerk’s office about $22,000 to compile the names of religious congregations in a database, and another $4,000 a year for technical support and maintenance, according to an estimate provided to the commission by Mayor Carlos Gimenez’s office.
But Johnson says their plan probably won't put them in the clear.
"Whatever other steps the commission chooses, the kind of policy they are proposing is currently the subject of intense litigation all over the country," he says. "The practice of having religious messages before meetings of governmental bodies or organizations has proven all over the country to be divisive-- and in many cases to lead to litigation. We urge the commission not to adopt this policy."
Commissioners say in the past they did not have the votes to bring back prayer to the Commission, but now they think they do.
"What they are doing with this proposed policy would be a step backward," Johnson says.