Christian Prayers by City Illegal, Watchdog Charges

Independence, Missouri Violation

The Freedom From Religion Foundation, a national state/church watchdog, sent a strong letter to Mayor Don Reimal of Independence, Mo., over the illegal practice of routinely hosting Christian prayers to open city council meetings. The letter was sent on behalf of an Independence resident and taxpayer, and the Foundation’s 200 Missouri members and 14,000 members across the country.

“Upon reviewing the prayers from 2009, it is clear that these prayers are rarely, if ever, non-denominational,” with Christian clergy or Christian guests routinely invoking Jesus, wrote Rebecca Kratz, Foundation staff attorney.

She cited the March 2 prayer by Pastor Fred Larson as an example, which ended “In Christ’s name.”

The 4-page letter noted that “the prayers being offered before the Council’s meetings do not fall into the narrow exception of constitutionally permissible government-sponsored prayer laid out by the Supreme Court.”

In the 1983 Marsh v. Chambers decision, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that to be permissible, government prayers must be “non-sectarian, non-denominational, led by an officiant who had not been selected based upon any impermissible religious motive, and . . . addressed to the body of legislators present and no one else.”

A recent decision, which was let stand this year by the Supreme Court and which was written by Justice Sandra Day O’Connor (sitting on the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals), noted:

“[T]he restriction that prayers be nonsectarian in nature is designed to make the prayers accessible to the people who come from a variety of backgrounds, not to exclude or disparage a particular faith.”

Kratz wrote: “The City Council of Independence cannot, under current law, permit any prayers that contain references to an explicit deity. The prayers currently given during Council meetings impermissibly advance Christianity and lead a reasonable observer to believe that the Council is endorsing not only religion over non-religion, but also Christianity over other faiths. “

Foundation co-president Annie Laurie Gaylor called government prayer “inappropriate, and divisive.” Gaylor said: “Divine guidance is hardly necessary when deciding on such terrestrial matters as variances, building permits, sidewalk repair and sewers! Citizens of all religions or no religion are compelled to come before the city council on civic, secular matters and should not be subjected to a religious show or test. “

Foundation co-president Dan Barker, author of Losing Faith in Faith: From Preacher to Atheist and Godless, pointed out: “Christians who know their bible are familiar with the biblical injunction of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount, who condemned public prayer as hypocritical and said: ‘Enter into thy closet, and when thou hast shut the door, pray to thy Father which is in secret’ (Matt. 6:5-13).”

The Foundation has asked the Council to discontinue prayers immediately. 

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.

Freedom From Religion Foundation

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