Like local governing bodies throughout Kentucky and the entire nation, the Danville City Commission opens each meting with someone saying a brief prayer.
Most — including some who have little or no belief in a higher authority — think nothing about these prayers and are not the least bit offended by them. Shoot, even the U.S. Congress begins its day with prayer and even pays the salary of a chaplain with tax dollars.
But members of the Freedom From Religion Foundation apparently are highly offended by the prayers at Danville commission meetings. In a letter to Danville Mayor Bernie Hunstad, , who is an attorney for the foundation, called the prayers “unnecessary, inappropriate and divisive.”
“Calling upon board members and citizens to pray is coercive and beyond the authority of any government,” Markert wrote. “Local government should not perform religious rituals or exhort citizens, regardless of their beliefs, to participate in, or show deference to, a religious ritual.”
First of all, no one is forcing those attending Danville commission members to pray. The commission is simply asking those in attendance to be respectful while others pray. If they choose not to join in that prayer, that’s their right. In fact, it is safe to say most people attending the commission meeting have no way of knowing just how many people there are praying or are just keeping silent — and they really don’t much care one way or another.
Hunstad said the letter did not change his viewpoint that the commission’s prayer to open each meeting is legal.
City Attorney Stephen Dexter said he had not reviewed the letter, but doesn’t see a need for changes. “I see no reason to reconsider the issue,” Dexter said. “We have researched the issue thoroughly, and I feel very confident that we’re abiding by the law.”
Earlier this year, both the Danville commission and the Boyle County Fiscal Court decided to keep prayers as part of their meetings, but agreed not use the name of Jesus in them.
The Freedom From Religion Foundation has 150 members in Kentucky and 19,000 nationwide. Its website celebrates the “godless constitution” of America.
But from our standpoint, the First Amendment of that document guarantees freedom “of” religion, not freedom “from” religion. The difference is significant. Freedom of religion guarantees every American the right to worship as he or she chooses — or not to worship at all. Freedom from religion would protect every person from being exposed to religion in any form, but it is impossible in a land that guarantees freedom of speech to guarantee people the right to worship and at the same time guarantee no one will be exposed to the right a display of any faith in God, particularly at a government meeting.
As we read it, the Constitution does not bar God from public meetings; it simply bars any governing body from requiring anyone to believe in God or promoting any particular faith.
There is nothing wrong with having someone saying a brief prayer at a public meeting. In fact, we suspect most people would be more offended by banning prayer at meetings than by the prayers themselves.
We mention Danville’s current experience with prayer only because if it can happen in central Kentucky, it can happen anywhere, including this community.
It may take a few years, but such “controversies” are coming to northeast Kentucky. It’s just a matter of time.