FFRF Protests Wheaton, Illinois City Council's Prayer

The Freedom From Religion Foundation and one of its Illinois members have lodged formal complaints with the mayor and city council in Wheaton, Ill., for sanctioning illegal prayers at council meetings.

The Foundation's letter, which includes transcriptions of the prayers, was sent Oct. 6 to Mayor Michael Gresk. It states the objections to the nature of the invocations, which courts have ruled must be nondenominational and nonsectarian.

The Foundation has nearly 14,000 members, including about 530 in Illinois.

According to a review of the prayers given by clergy to start council meetings from March through September 2009, six had specific references to Jesus Christ:

Fr. Joe Kupka, St. Joseph Orthodox Church, on April 20: "O Lord Jesus Christ our God, as we celebrate your glorious resurrection from the dead, accept our prayers and the good intentions and the works of these thy servants, the mayor and city council."

Pastor Devin Leftwich, Vessels of His Love Ministries, closed his June 1 invocation with: "We thank you and count it on this day, in Jesus' name. Amen."

Rev. Henry Gordon, Second Baptist Church, on Aug. 3: "I ask that you bless every soul in here in the mighty name of Jesus, heal and restore, complete, and make whole in the mighty name of Jesus. I give you the glory and praises for the opportunity to be here in this time. In Jesus' holy name. Amen."

Rebecca Kratz, Foundation staff attorney, said the prayers "do not fall into the narrow exception of constitutionally permissible government-sponsored prayer outlined by the Supreme Court." In the case of Marsh v. Chambers, the court held that prayers must not be "exploited to proselytize or advance any one, or to disparage any other faith or belief."

Kratz told Wheaton officials that the type of prayer offered at the council's meetings runs afoul of the First Amendment. "The prayers impermissibly advance Christianity and lead a reasonable observer to believe that the council is endorsing not only religion over nonreligion but also Christianity over other faiths." The practice also "inappropriately alienates non-Christians and nonbelievers," Kratz said.

"By hosting these sectarian prayers, which show preference for Christianity, the council is illegally and inappropriately imposing its religious beliefs on the citizens of Wheaton who attend the council's meetings for public business."

FFRF officer Theodore Utchen, of Wheaton, initially complained in June to the city. Utchen, an attorney, said he can see no good reason for prayers to be included as part of the council's official business. People who want to pray can do so at home or in church, but prayers shouldn't be part of government proceedings, Utchen said.

Utchen's letter to the city also noted the strictly Christian nature of the prayers at council meetings, although the community includes people of other faiths and of no faith.

The Foundation prefers that public boards sponsor no prayer at all, said Annie Laurie Gaylor, Foundation co-president. "But at the very least, any prayers must be nonsectarian."

In a letter to Utchen, Mayor Gresk said the prayers have been part of council meetings for "many years," and no one has complained before.

Utchen told the mayor and council that the prayers are an unnecessary and unwanted imposition of religion. "I have elected you to attend to the city's business, and that is all I need for you to do."

The Freedom From Religion Foundation, based in Madison, Wis., is a national association of freethinkers (atheists, agnostics) that has been working since 1978 to keep church and state separate.
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FFRF is a non-profit, educational organization. All dues and donations are deductible for income-tax purposes.

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