Wheeling City Council replaces prayer with secular message after FFRF complaint

A West Virginia city council has replaced a routine prayer before meetings with a secular alternative following a complaint from the Freedom From Religion Foundation.

A concerned Wheeling citizen reported to FFRF that each Wheeling City Council meeting began with a prayer. These prayers were reportedly led by City Council members, except one led by an outside minister.

FFRF wrote to Wheeling City Council drawing attention to the unconstitutionality of these invocations, since this amounts to an illegal endorsement of religion. Fourth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals precedent prohibits government-led prayer of the sort that was practiced at Wheeling City Council meetings, FFRF pointed out. 

“Prayer at government meetings is unnecessary, inappropriate and divisive and the best solution is to discontinue invocations altogether,” Legal Fellow Brendan Johnson wrote to Wheeling Mayor Glenn F. Elliott Jr. “Council members are, of course, free to pray privately or to worship on their own time in their own way, but they should not worship on taxpayers’ time. The prayers exclude the 26 percent of Americans who are not religious.”

FFRF urged the City Council to refrain from starting meetings with prayer in order to demonstrate its respect for the diverse range of religious and nonreligious citizens living in Wheeling.

“We urge you to concentrate on civil matters and leave religion to the private conscience of each individual by ending the practice of hosting prayers at your meetings,” Johnson concluded.

The council has heeded FFRF’s suggestion and removed the religious references in the invocation.

According to local news, “Wheeling City Council will shift to secular prayers before opening meetings.” At a recent meeting, one councilman read a secular reflection before the meeting was called to order. Johnson also received confirmation from the city solicitor that the language of the invocation would not reference God moving forward.

“We commend the city council for taking seriously this recommendation,” FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor comments. “A local city body ought not to lend its taxpayer-funded time to religion by starting meetings with a sectarian prayer.”

The Freedom From Religion Foundation is a national nonprofit organization with more than 30,000 members across the country, including in West Virginia. FFRF’s purposes are to protect the constitutional principle of separation between church and state, and to educate the public on matters relating to nontheism.

The Freedom From Religion Foundation, based in Madison, Wis., a 501(c)(3) nonprofit educational charity, is the nation's largest association of freethinkers (atheists, agnostics), and has been working since 1978 to keep religion and government separate.

FFRF is a non-profit, educational organization. All dues and donations are deductible for income-tax purposes.

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FFRF is a member of the Secular Coalition for America

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