This announcement comes almost a month after the city council members of Oak Harbor—an island town of 22,000 residents in western Washington—considered a proposal that would have banned the names of any particular deities from invocations. The proposed prayer policy revision was first mentioned during a May 7th city council meeting.
Based on the city council minutes from the May 7th meeting, this proposal was largely the result of a letter the Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF) had sent to city officials. In the letter, Stephanie Schmitt, a FFRF attorney, condemned the city council’s longstanding tradition of opening meetings with prayers, claiming the prayers “impermissibly advance Christianity.”
“Our nation is founded on a godless Constitution,” Schmitt wrote, “whose only references to religion in government are exclusionary … The United States was first nation [sic] to adopt a secular constitution, investing sovereignty in “We the people,” not a divine entity.”
The Oak Harbor city council’s proposed prayer policy revision included four main points, which outlined strategies the city could employ to ensure more generic, all-accepting invocations. Of the four points, the third received the most criticism:
“The invocation should not be longer than 90 seconds,” the resolution suggested, “and the conclusion of the prayer should embrace the collective prayerful thoughts of all present in an ecumenical manner rather than “in the name of…” a particular deity.”
Even though the prayer policy revision was not passed by the council, many local residents were still maddened by the proposal. As reported by the Whidbey News-Times, several local religious leaders were critical of the proposition, and were especially upset by the suggestion that the mention of “a particular deity” should be banned. Even a few city council members were disappointed that the mayor decided to bring up the proposal in the first place.
After Oak Harbor residents voiced opposition, the city council drafted and discussed a revised prayer policy proposal on May 29th. The new proposition no longer features the section about regulating what deity names can be mentioned in invocations, and instead recognizes that “[t]he opportunity to offer an invocation is voluntary and the contents of the invocation may be dictated by the beliefs of the individual or organization offering the invocation.”
The revised proposition also articulates the council’s belief that pre-meeting prayers are legally permissible, as confirmed by the 9th Circuit Court of Appeal’s March 2013 Rubin v. City of Lancaster decision. (In this case, Judge O’Scannlain ruled that legislative prayer “withstands scrutiny,” so long as it does not “proselytize, advance, or disparage one religion or affiliate government with a particular faith.”)
Meanwhile, as previously reported, the U.S. Supreme Court has agreed to take up the case of Town of Greece v. Galloway. Like the Oak Harbor situation, Town of Greece v. Galloway involves the question of legislative prayers’ constitutionality—only this time in Greece, New York town hall gatherings.
Ken Klukowski of the Family Research Council stated in a news release that he expects the Supreme Court to uphold the constitutionality of legislative prayers, which would be a major “victory” for people of faith.
“Given that the Court has looked approvingly to legislative prayer dating to the Founding,” he wrote, “it is likely that the Court will not only affirm prayer but significantly strengthen the religious liberty rights of Americans in public life and the public square.”