Rapid City, South Dakota — Government officials in a city in South Dakota are resisting demands from a well-known atheist activist organization to cease presenting a time of prayer before each city council meeting.
The Wisconsin-based Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF) recently sent a letter to officials in Rapid City after a resident complained about the prayers, asserting that the invocations were unlawful. However, instead of dispensing of the practice, which has been a tradition for decades, both Mayor Sam Kooiker and City Council determined to stand their ground — come what may.
Earlier this month, City Council voted on a measure to request that the city attorney draft a policy that would enshrine the prayers as an official practice in the event that FFRF decides to sue. A number of residents and area pastors also turned out to the meeting and spent 40 minutes speaking about why prayer is vital in the nation today.
“My generation, my children and my grandchildren need to be able to look at their peers and know they seek out God’s wisdom,” Rapid City prayer supporter Roy Best said. “Because any time God is taken out of our government in any way, that country starts to slide into chaos.”
Others referenced how the Founding Fathers were men of prayer, and how the First Amendment grants freedom of religion, as well as the fact that Rapid City has a longstanding tradition of prayer at Council meetings.
Out of the fifteen that addressed those gathered, only two were opposed to the prayers, one of whom was a teenage atheist. According to the Rapid City Journal, Council Member Bill Clayton replied to the teen by giving him Scripture. It reports that the meeting was filled with “a burst of Biblical quotes and decidedly defiant rhetoric.”
Following the City Council meeting, Mayor Kooiker sent out an e-newsletter to city employees, vowing to stand firm.
“This issue has brought the entire council and nearly the entire community together,” Kooiker wrote. “We are going to stand and fight this nonsensical effort to remove prayer from our meetings. We aren’t backing down.”
However, when some city employees expressed disagreement with the email and notified FFRF, the organization send a second demand letter to the City, rebuking Clayton for his boldly Biblical comments during the meeting and condemning Kooiker for sending out his clearly Christian email, which they asserted crossed the lines between the separation of church and state.
“We are troubled by what took place at the City Council meeting on February 4. It is shameful that some City Council members used heated rhetoric in asserting they want to ‘fight’ and that FFRF is a ‘bully’ in simply asking for the council to follow the Constitution,” the letter stated. “Mayor Sam Kooiker and some City Council members have turned the issue of City Council prayer into a discussion of the merits of religion. … The best resolution is for the council to drop prayers from its public meetings convened for city business. These prayers have been divisive in the community.”
FFRF says it wants the prayers replaced with a moment of silence. Kooiker vows that it will never happen.
“We’ve been doing prayer for perhaps over 100 years; we’ve been able to verify it to at least the 1950s, so it’s been a long standing, cherished and honored tradition,” he explained to reporters. “And it’s something that we intend to continue.”
City officials plan to review the city attorney’s drafted prayer policy in the next few weeks.