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League City's decision to bring back prayer at meetings might not be end to the debate - The Galveston County Daily News : Local News

November 27, 2014

League City's decision to bring back prayer at meetings might not be end to the debate

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Posted: Monday, June 9, 2014 12:15 am

LEAGUE CITY — With a hint of enthusiasm in his voice, Mayor Tim Paulissen welcomed Ralph Bryant to the May 27 City Council meeting.

It had been seven months since prayer had been an official part of City Council meeting, and Bryant, minister of League City Church of Christ, was selected as the one to return a reflection of faith to city government.

League City Council isn’t the only governing body in Galveston County to have prayer as part of its meetings. In fact, almost every city and the county commissioners start their meetings with a prayer.

Some invite local pastors to offer the message. Others ask a member of the governing body to offer words of faith.

Some of the county’s school boards avoid praying as part of the meetings but do ask for a moment of silence.

League City targeted

League City was singled out by Freedom From Religion Foundation. The group said it received a complaint from a resident who argued that prayer at the council meetings violates the U.S. Constitution.

To avoid legal action, the city adopted a policy that officially kicked prayer out of the meeting.

The ordinance, crafted with help from The Liberty Institute, a Plano-based nonprofit law firm that regularly takes up religious issues, moved prayer out of the meeting.

The Liberty Institute also offered to defend the city at no cost should someone sue over prayer at meetings.

It wasn’t totally gone. While not officially a part of the posted meeting, the city invited local pastors to offer a pre-meeting prayer.

As soon as the word “Amen,” was said, the mayor would gavel each council meeting into session.

A Supreme Court ruling last month found a prayer during a city meeting did not constitute government establishing religion resurrected a council meeting prayer in League City.

Bryant didn’t address the new policy directly, but evoked God as guiding the council’s actions.

“Despite their authority and their abilities, they still need your providential care and guidance,” Bryant said during his prayer.

Support for prayer

Not surprisingly, the city has seen no backlash for its decision. Not yet anyway.

A San Antonio man, who threatened to sue the city over its older policy, hasn’t done so and it is unclear whether he will pursue legal action, given the Supreme Court decision.

“It’s unfortunate but no surprise that League City will continue to impose Christian prayer on its citizens as long as they can get away with it, despite the fact that it alienates League City nonbelievers and religious minorities,” said Elizabeth Cavell, an attorney with the Freedom From Religion Foundation.

“It remains to be seen how this case will be applied to different factual circumstances in any potential future lawsuits on this issue; but of course this decision does not require a government body to open public meetings with prayer.”

Most residents who participated in a Daily News survey support the move.

“Our country was founded on Christianity,” said former League City Councilwoman and now county Republican Party Chairwoman Barbara Meeks. “By all means, let us pray, whether by the governing body or a guest minister.”

League City resident Jerri Hamachek said she has no issue either, but offered a different approach.

“Out of mutual respect to all, maybe just a silent moment for folks to do whatever they choose to do with that time,” she said. “If you want to pray, then pray. If not, then don’t.”

Mark LeDoux lives in Texas City, but is a minister for the Universal Life Church.

“I believe people should leave their religions at home or place of worship,” he said.

He was among the more than 100 people who took part in an online debate about the issue of prayers at governmental meetings.

No outside prayers

The League City policy might still have its pitfalls. For example, while changing the ordinance to return prayer to the official council meeting, it still maintains that only those religious organizations within the city limits would be invited to offer the prayer.

It’s a policy Paulissen said he’d like to revise to allow the city to reach out to organizations outside the city limits, particularly those of the Jewish and Muslim faiths. There are no synagogues or mosques in the city limits.

“I think prayer on behalf of the public should represent all the people who live in that area,” said Rabbi Stuart Federow, head of the Congregation Shaar Hashalom.

The rabbi said he had been invited before to offer a prayer, but his schedule conflicted with his ability to make the meeting.

That was, however, before the revised ordinance. Since it was changed in the fall, he has not been invited and there are no city records showing anyone other than Christian leaders having been asked to give the prayer.

Shaar Hashalom is in the Clear Lake area and not League City. It and the Temple Beth Tikvah are the closest Jewish worship centers to the city.

Each has members from League City.

Reaching other faiths

The closest mosque or Islamic Center also is outside the city. Imams for those institutions could not be reached for comment.

According to a study done by the Association of Statisticians of American Religious Bodies, Muslims account for the county’s second largest faith group behind Christianity.

That same study found that 45 percent of the county’s population do not claim to be members of any particular faith-based organization.

City spokeswoman Kristi Wyatt said while the mayor has expressed an interest in reaching out to other groups outside the city limits, but any change to policy “would have to be adopted by City Council.”

The night the council voted to bring back prayer to the council meetings, Mark Johnson, pastor of Life Fellowship Church, provided the pre-meeting prayer.

His church, while drawing several members from League City, is in the city limits of Kemah.