Church-state Watchdog Group Objects To Orlando Prayer Policy

Group Asks City Council To Stop Religious Practice At Public Meetings

Officials of the Orlando City Council should stop blatantly flouting the First Amendment by opening their public meetings with Christian prayer says Americans United for Separation of Church and State.

In a Sept. 17 letter to Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer and City Clerk Jose Fernandez, Jr., Americans United cited numerous instances when the council permitted religious groups or their representatives to open public meetings with prayers citing the Lord or Jesus Christ. The letter notes that while the U.S. Supreme Court has upheld prayers before state legislatures, those prayers were "non-sectarian."

"Accordingly, the courts have generally held that legislative prayers, or prayers before other deliberative bodies of government, are unconstitutional when they include references to 'Christ,' 'Jesus,' or other similar words," wrote Ayesha Khan, AU's legal director, and Sandi Farrell, a Madison Fellow.

AU asserted that the city clerk has invited only religious leaders or representatives that the mayor said were uplifting or inspirational and has turned away a Wiccan citizen's request to offer an invocation. Citing a 1989 high court ruling, AU's letter noted that the "clearest command" of the First Amendment "is that one religious denomination cannot be officially preferred over another."

"It's past time for the city council to stop its religious practices and start working for all citizens of Orlando," said the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, AU's executive director. "The exclusive nature of its prayer practices has no place in a forum meant for religious and non-religious citizens."

A Sept. 14 report from the Orlando Sentinel, notes that "it's not uncommon for the city to mix religion with bureaucracy. The mayor and City Council members bow their heads before the beginning of each meeting." The Sentinel article centered on a recent proclamation issued by the council praising a Christian group known for denouncing gays and proclaiming it can convert them to heterosexuals. That proclamation, the article noted, was stamped with the city's seal and included several Bible passages.

AU's lawyers asked the city council to change its practice of opening its public meetings with prayer "to comport with constitutional guidelines." The Council should either stop prayers at its meetings altogether or ensure the prayers offered are non-sectarian and that all faith groups are allowed to deliver nonsectarian prayers, AU's letter states.

Americans United for Separation of Church and State is a religious liberty watchdog group based in Washington, D.C. Founded in 1947, the organization educates Americans about the importance of church-state separation in safeguarding religious freedom.

Americans United is a religious liberty watchdog group based in Washington, D.C. Founded in 1947, the organization educates Americans about the importance of church-state separation in safeguarding religious freedom.