The Freedom From Religion Foundation is delighted to report that the Dane County Board of Supervisors has officially voted to remove prayer from board agendas.
Due to this action taken at its meeting earlier this week, the agenda will return to listing only “inspirational messages” by rotating board members. Although such messages may explicitly include prayer, there will no longer be an agenda item prompting prayer.
This reverts the county board to a position it originally took in the late 1970s, when FFRF co-founders Anne and Annie Laurie Gaylor took the first official action of the newly created state/church watchdog in asking the board to stop praying.
That request by the mother-daughter team was reported in the June 22, 1976, edition of The Capital Times daily newspaper, in a story headlined “‘Pray on your own time’ Gaylor urges county committee.”
As reporter Ed Bark duly recorded, “[Anne] Gaylor told the slightly bemused committee that: ‘It is not the business of governmental bodies to pray.’” When board members pray publicly: “You inflict pressure, compulsion and embarrassment on those of your members and those of your audience who do not accept or share these private religious views,” Gaylor said. She suggested the board instead open with a reading from the Constitution, “with special attention to the First Amendment.”
Annie Laurie Gaylor also urged the supervisors back in 1976 to “pray on your own time.”
While the reporter gave the Gaylors a “snowball’s chance in hell” of persuading the board, in fact, by the following year, the board had dropped prayers and replaced them with rotating “inspirational messages” left to the choice of the supervisor. The Gaylors also asked the Madison Common Council to drop prayer at the same time, and the city acceded in 1977, never to resume them.
At some point, however, the Dane County Board forgot about this vote and prayer ended back on the agenda, even though most supervisors did not pray when it was their turn to open the meetings. Thanks to the commitment and leadership of Heidi Wegleitner, an attorney for Legal Action of Wisconsin who is a six-term supervisor representing District 2, the full board once again voted on Tuesday, April 19, to drop prayer. (During the debate on Tuesday, Supervisors Tim Keifer and Jeff Weigand said prayers.) Annie Laurie Gaylor and FFRF Attorney Ryan Jayne testified before the Board’s Executive Committee last month when it considered whether to approve the measure for a full vote of the Board.
Wegleitner received threats and hate mail after Fox News did an unhelpful segment about her proposal to remove both prayer and the recitation of the religious Pledge of Allegiance. She talked about the proposal and the backlash on FFRF’s “Ask an Atheist” program.
Wegleitner’s motion to stop scheduling the Pledge, which contains the words “under God” in it, failed. However, as Wegleitner noted, the motion stirred an “important conversation.”
“We have elevated the voice of dissent and are making more space for free speech,” adds Wegleitner. “All in all, a pretty good night.”
FFRF appreciates Wegleitner standing her ground in defending the Constitution.
“We’re grateful to Heidi Wegleitner for her leadership and to the others on the Dane County Board who have recognized that scheduling prayer as part of a governmental meeting turns nonbelievers into outsiders,” says Gaylor. She also thanked Dane County FFRF members who contacted the board to support Wegleitner’s measure. At least 40 percent of Dane County residents have no religious affiliation, FFRF points out.
The Freedom From Religion Foundation is a national nonprofit organization with more than 36,000 members and several chapters all across the country. FFRF’s purposes are to protect the constitutional principle of separation between state and church, and to educate the public on matters relating to nontheism.
Pictured is Dane County Superintendent Heidi Wegleitner.