FFRF: Akron City Council’s Prayers Are Illegal

Does the Akron City Council need a lesson to learn the difference between a sectarian and a nonsectarian prayer? The Freedom From Religion Foundation thinks it does.

The Foundation filed a complaint March 16 on behalf of one of its approximately 360 Ohio members with a letter to Council President Marco Sommerville. Because courts have repeatedly held that sectarian prayers violate the Constitution's Establishment Clause, the Foundation objected to Christian invocations opening council meetings in Akron.

A review of the prayers from several council proceedings in late 2009 showed they contain specific references to Jesus Christ and "are rarely, if ever, nondenominational and nonsectarian," said Rebecca Market, FFRF staff attorney. By frequently invoking "Jesus' name," the prayers show preference for a particular religion's deity, which federal courts have barred.

The council's meeting agendas repeatedly say "A nonsectarian prayer was said by . . ." but the prayers are all sectarian. One such example, from Rev. Andy Smith of Rolling Acres Alliance Church:

"Will you bow with me? Dear Lord Jesus, I pray that you be glorified in this meeting and that you will help our city, that you will heal us, that you will feed the hungry, that you will shelter the homeless, that you will bless the leaders of our city with the knowledge of your will, that they will walk in a manner worthy of you, that you'll be glorified in this city and that you'll restore us in all ways unto you. Bless this meeting with wisdom, and I pray that your will is accomplished. It's in your precious name we pray, Lord Jesus. Amen."

Another prayer by a United Methodist pastor ended with, "All this we pray in the name of the Triune God. Amen."

Akron has more than 200,000 people of diverse ethnic and religious backgrounds, including agnostics and atheists. For 24 straight years, it has commemorated the Jewish Holocaust with special events. For the council to open public meeting with exclusively Christian prayers, even if it calls them nonsectarian, is impermissible and illegal, said Rebecca Markert, FFRF staff attorney.

Such prayers lead "a reasonable observer to believe that the City Council is endorsing not only religion over nonreligion, but also Christianity over other faiths," Markert said. "The constitutional rights of citizens to participate in government meetings should not be predicated on being subjected to Christian-based prayers."

The solution to the problem is simple, she said: Discontinue the prayers.

"We think it is the height of arrogance to imagine that a deity — if there were one — would care a whit about Akron's liquor licenses, sewers and variances," said Annie Laurie Gaylor, FFRF co-president.

"Prayer is unnecessary, divisive and makes nonbelievers feel like outsiders in their own government."

Freedom From Religion Foundation

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