Cancel opening prayers at city council meetings, FFRF urges N.C. city

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The Freedom From Religion Foundation is urging the city of Roxboro to end the discriminatory practice of opening its City Council meetings with councilor-led prayers.

A concerned Roxboro resident has reported that the City Council regularly opens its meetings with Christian prayers led by members of the council. Mayor Merilyn Newell reportedly selects who gets to deliver the prayer, which is typically a member of the City Council, and the prayers are always Christian. FFRF’s complainant is a non-Christian and has felt alienated at City Council meetings due to the imposition of Christianity and the continuous support of one particular sectarian faith tradition.

“Observing a strict separation of church and state offends nobody, includes everybody and honors the First Amendment,” FFRF Staff Attorney Chris Line writes to the mayor.

Prayer at government meetings is unnecessary, inappropriate and divisive, FFRF points out. The best solution is to discontinue invocations altogether. All City Council members are free to pray privately or to worship on their own time in their own way. However, they do not need to worship on taxpayers’ time. The City Council ought not to lend its power and prestige to religion by scheduling, hosting or conducting governmental prayers.

FFRF recently won a suit in the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals against the city of Parkersburg over its City Council’s practice of opening each meeting with a recitation of the Lord’s Prayer. The court permanently enjoined the City Council from opening its meetings with the Lord’s Prayer, declaring the practice unconstitutional because the council “wrapped itself in a single faith.” As a result of the victory, the city was forced to pay almost $60,000 to cover attorney fees and costs.

Citizens, including Roxboro’s nonreligious citizens, are compelled to come before the City Council and its committees on important civic matters, to seek licenses and permits and to participate in important decisions affecting their livelihoods, property, children, and quality of life. The opening prayer excludes those who are among the 37 percent of Americans who are non-Christians, including the nearly one in three adult Americans (29 percent) who are religiously unaffiliated. It is coercive, embarrassing and intimidating for nonreligious citizens to be required to make a public showing of their nonbelief (by not rising or praying) or else to display deference toward a religious sentiment in which they do not believe but which their council members clearly do.

In order for the City Council to demonstrate its respect for the diverse range of religious and nonreligious citizens living in Roxboro, FFRF is urging it to concentrate on civil matters and leave religion to the private conscience of each individual by ending the practice of prayers at meetings.

“This ostentatiously Christian practice must end,” says FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor. “It presumes to speak for the religious belief of the entire population of the city of Roxboro — a presumption that is quite certainly false.”

The Freedom From Religion Foundation is a national nonprofit organization with over 40,000 members and several chapters across the country, including more than 900 members and a local chapter in North Carolina. Our purposes are to protect the constitutional principle of separation between state and church, and to educate the public on matters relating to nontheism.

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Freedom From Religion Foundation

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