Councils can pray away at public meetings

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Local leaders weigh in on Supreme Court ruling

By Denyse Clark

The U.S. Supreme Court said this week that prayers – even Christian prayers – that begin public meetings do not violate the Constitution. 

On Monday, May 5, the court ruled 5-4 that the content of the prayers is not significant as long as they “do not denigrate non-Christians or try to win converts.”

Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy said the prayers should be seen as ceremonial and in keeping with the nation’s traditions.

“The inclusion of a brief, ceremonial prayer as part of a larger exercise in civic recognition suggests that its purpose and effect are to acknowledge religious leaders and the institutions they represent rather than to exclude or coerce nonbelievers,” he said.

Lancaster County Council Chairman Larry McCullough said individual council members are allowed to pray as they wish at council meetings.

“A council member can pray as they want to pray,” he said. “If we have a Christian council member, they can pray a Christian prayer. If we have a non-Christian council member, they can pray as they wish to do. And, if someone doesn't want to participate at all, they don't have to. We leave it up to the individual.”

Heath Springs Town Councilman Ted Sowell, who usually leads that elected body in its opening prayers, said if a Christian can’t share what he has, he’s in trouble.

“I’ve been a Christian all my life,” Sowell said. “I was raised Southern Baptist and I feel very strongly if you won’t follow your Lord, you’re in serious trouble.”

Sowell said the nation has fallen into difficult times because leaders have allowed others in high-ranking offices to control what can and can’t be said.

“This country was founded by Christian people,” Sowell said. “We have now allowed a minority of the people to tell us what we can’t do.”

Sowell said he will continue to pray the prayers of a Christian faith as he has done in the past.

“I grew up praying in schools and I still very strongly believe in it,” he said. “They’re gonna have a hard time getting me to stop doing it.”

Kershaw Town Councilman Michael Cook leads the prayers for his council and prays in Jesus’ name. Cook said he has no intention of stopping.

“I am a Christian,” Cook said. “I am a man of God and I believe in acknowledging God in all I do. His spiritual guidance helps me to make decisions in all I do for the townspeople.”

Cook said the reason he prays in Jesus’ name is “to help the meetings go more smoothly.”

“I stand strong in my faith,” he said. “I’m just a man of God.”

City of Lancaster Mayor Joe Shaw said he’s always believed the Supreme Court would eventually rule to favor the practice of allowing Christian prayers at council meetings.

“If you’ve noticed, I’ve always invited ministers from the community to pray if they’ve attended our meetings,” Shaw said. “People have their different religions but we’ve not had a problem here with people opposing our prayers.”

Shaw referenced the unrest in the town of Great Falls when resident and Wiccan priestess Darla Wynne sued the town in 2001, claiming its council members violated the separation of church and state by using the name Jesus Christ in prayers. 

In 2003, the court ruled in Wynne’s favor and council members were instructed to pray non-Christian prayers. Shaw said Lancaster city council members will continue to pray Christian prayers.

“We’ve decided until somebody brings suit, we’ll just pray the way we’ve always done,” he said. 


Contact reporter Denyse Clark at (803) 283-1152