With their adoption of a new prayer policy, members of the Hamilton County Commission might believe that they've resolved the issues -- and addressed the federal lawsuit -- arising from their long-standing practice of allowing public prayers before each meeting. They have not. They merely have muddled the issue. The lawsuit and often venomous debate about the legality and necessity of prayer that endorses a specific religion at a public meeting should and will continue.
The issue arose publicly in May when a letter from the Freedom From Religion Foundation pointed out that "every 2012 prayer so far [at commission meetings] has been given 'in Jesus' name.'" That, the group rightly suggested, easily met the criteria for endorsement of the religion-specific prayer. A prompt response from the commission upon receipt of the letter could have resolved the issue. No such decision was forthcoming.
The proper response would have been for the commission to end all prayer at meetings. If not that, commissioners could have asked for a moment of silence or reflection during which those in attendance could pray or not as they chose. Either certainly would have defused the issue.
Alternatively, commissioners could have instructed those offering prayers to be more inclusive -- to pray in the name of "God" or "the Creator," for example. That would not have been as desirable an outcome as the first options, but it might have provided serviceable resolution. That path was not taken either. The prayers in Jesus' name blatantly continued.
The new rules approved last week without public discussion affirm the commissioners commitment to public prayer with a couple of caveats that may or may not pass legal muster. The new policy will employ a database of religious congregations in the county to invite leaders to provide a prayer at commission meetings. Blanket invitations will be sent to all those on the lists. Those responding affirmatively will be invited to pray on a first-come, first-serve basis. The invitation, though, comes with stipulations.
The policy says that prayer is voluntary and that the speaker cannot proselytize or seek to advance any specific faith nor disparage the religious faith or nonreligious views of others. It adds that the invocation can be a "prayer, reflective moment of silence, or a short solemnizing moment." While welcome, the new rules and instructions won't resolve the question of government-endorsed prayer here. It's a stop-gap effort to delay a definitive decision.
There is no assurance, for example, that the individual offering an invocation will follow instructions. There's no certainty that using what commissioners say is a central database of religious congregations "with an established presence in Hamilton County" will provide an acceptable diversity of speakers. Many religious groups simply do not appear on such lists, and their exclusion from such a database should not disqualify them from the commission's invitation to provide an invocation.
Commissioners clearly are reluctant to halt prayers before meetings. That's understandable. In a community as imbued with religion as this one, eliminating prayer from a public forum would require a considerable act of political courage, one that commissioners, so far, have been unable to summon. Instead, they've chosen to kick the issue down the road -- to the federal courts.
Judge Harry S. "Sandy" Mattice will hold a July 26 hearing to consider whether to grant a preliminary injunction to halt the prayers until he can rule on the lawsuit over prayer at commission meetings. Until the matter is adjudicated, commissioners should halt public prayers before meetings. It wouldn't be a popular decision, but it would be an eminently fair one given the principle involved.