Editorial: Questions stem from council’s prayer removal

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, February 12, 2003

The sudden controversy over prayer at city council meetings has raised a series of questions about council procedure and whether religion has a place in government proceedings.

First, did Mayor Jean Eaton act appropriately when she removed the Serenity Prayer, which had been said by councilor and pastor George Marin before meetings since last March, from the agenda?

It appears the mayor was within the scope of her powers when she made the move, and she had discussed the change with councilors beforehand. Because most agreed, there really was no need to have the council vote, and an attempt to force a vote after the fact failed because no councilor other than Marin supported bringing the prayer back. There appears to be an overwhelming majority in favor of ditching the prayer.

At the same time, Eaton’s tactics were a little fishy. Taking the prayer off the agenda without discussing it during a council meeting looks like an attempt to quietly dispose of the issue without stirring up emotions. If most of the members agreed, there should have been no problem putting it to a vote, unless Eaton didn’t think it was important enough, or feared it would get messy. If avoiding a mess was the intent, the tactic certainly backfired.

The other question is more profound. Should government leaders start their meetings with a nod toward God? There is, in fact, plenty of precedent for doing so. The legislature has chaplains to lead prayers, and other city councils invite pastors from the community to say a prayer before their proceedings. It seems the risk of drawing lawsuits over separation of church and state is slim, especially in a community where so many people identify themselves as Christians.

Regardless, the real crux of the matter is whether the council feels the prayer is a valuable part of its meetings. With five of six members opposed to bringing it back, the answer is clear. Many Albert Lea residents feel differently, but after learning that councilors don’t feel the prayer is appropriate, forcing it back on them now would make it an empty gesture. Instead, the council and mayor should be more mindful of bringing matters up publicly, with the intent of fostering a discussion, before making decisions in the future.

Tribune editorials represent the opinion of the newspaper’s management and editorial staff.