Bahai News -- Daily Herald - Elgin searches for balance with public prayer

Elgin searches for balance with public prayer

By Kara Spak Daily Herald Staff Writer
Posted on January 02, 2003

At the final Elgin City Council meeting of 2002, council members and those in attendance stood, bowed their heads and silently listened to Judson College President Jerry Cain pray.

Without directly invoking the Christian heritage of his school, Cain prayed for the process of voluntary government, for shelter for Elgin's homeless and in thanksgiving for the "good life" of state Rep. Doug Hoeft, who died earlier that week.

Cain's participation at the meeting is the latest incarnation of a 2-year-old saga in Elgin over the invocation that traditionally begins, with the Pledge of Allegiance, all of the city's council meetings.

At issue in Elgin are not only first amendment separation of church and state issues but also logistics. The council suspended the prayer twice in the past two years simply because the city staff could not regularly schedule a local religious leader to deliver the prayer.

Though council meetings typically start at 7 p.m., an executive session directly before the meeting occasionally delays the invocation.

"It's gotten difficult and in fact sometimes embarrassing to find people to do this," said Elgin Mayor Ed Schock. "Sometimes because of executive session we felt bad for leaving people sitting out there."

After the second suspension of the invocation, council member John Walters contacted Judson College, an evangelical Christian school on the city's northwest side, to see if they were interested in leading the prayer.

The school is now expected to send students and other representatives to the meetings, though Schock said the Judson participants were asked to represent all religions in their invocations. The city was also contacted by members of the local Jewish and Bahai communities, who will be added to the schedule, Walters said.

Walters added that the invocation is a traditional part of meetings in Elgin, one of the region's oldest towns.

"It's important for us to do it for the same reason it's important for Congress and the Illinois state legislature to do it," Walters said. "Anytime we can evoke a higher one's presence helps the whole situation work out that much better."

Elgin is not anomalous in delivering a prayer before council meetings, said Rob Boston, assistant director of communications for Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, but he added that Judson's participation was unusual.

Boston said his group advocates leaving prayer out of municipal meetings, but a 1983 United States Supreme Court case ruled it was constitutional for the Nebraska legislature to pray at its meetings. Other municipal communities across the country extrapolated the Nebraska case to extend the protection to their own prayers.

Americans United, Boston said, is now fighting for inclusiveness in who delivers the meeting prayer, if there is one. The watchdog group, along with the American Civil Liberties Union, filed a lawsuit in federal court earlier this month against the Chesterfield County Board of Supervisors in Virginia after they refused to add a Wiccan to a list of volunteer clergy who give the invocation at county board meetings.

Wicca is a pagan, nature-centered, pantheistic religion with primarily female worshippers. The word Wicca is often used synonymously with positive witchcraft.

"You cannot limit this to Judeo- Christian religions," Boston said. "Councils really need to understand they can't play favorites. This is something towns need to be aware of so they start opening the door to a number of types of religious expressions."

Boston, who said he learned of Elgin's invitation to Judson College through an Associated Press article, said this gesture "opens up some problems" if the city was only allowing Christians to deliver the invocation. Walters and Schock both emphasized, however, that this was not the council's intent.

Not everyone on the Elgin council agrees with Walters that a prayer should be a regular part of government meetings. Schock said that the council is divided on the issue of an invocation, but no one feels strongly enough to fight to end the prayer.

"I question it myself," Schock said. "There is separation of church and state, and we were elected to represent the people in a non-sectarian body."

He added that Elgin is a city with a diverse religious population, which includes active Jewish, Muslim, Bahai and Buddhist communities.

With the prayer, some members of these smaller local faith communities voice concerns to the city that they were not represented. Without the prayer, the city received complaints that it should continue the invocation.

"We're trying to avoid controversy, but every time we do something we create it," Schock said.

Prayer: City trying to avoid controversy

©Copyright 2003, Daily Herald (IL, USA)

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