Freedom From Religion Foundation Sues to Stop City Council Members From Opening Public Meetings With Lord’s Prayer

PARKERSBURG, W. Va. — One of the nation’s most conspicuous Church-State separation groups has filed a lawsuit against a city in West Virginia in an effort to stop city council members from opening public meetings with the Lord’s Prayer.

The Wisconsin-based Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF), along with two local atheist members of the organization, filed suit on Tuesday against the City of Parkersburg, asserting that the practice violates the Establishment Clause of the U.S. Constitution. The clause reads, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion…”

The lawsuit states that the two complainants, Daryl Cobranchi and Eric Engle, feel uncomfortable and like outsiders when the prayer is recited because they decline to stand and join in the recitation.

“During council meetings that Mr. Cobranchi attended, he was conspicuous by not standing and not reciting the Lord’s Prayer. Mr. Cobranchi felt pressure to participate in the prayer because the city council members and many attendees stood and recited the Lord’s Prayer in unison,” it outlines.

“The council’s recitations of the Lord’s Prayer have made council meetings very uncomfortable for Mr. Engle. He feels excluded and has observed that others who do not participate in standing during the prayer or reciting the Lord’s Prayer appear to be excluded,” the legal challenge states.

Cobranchi has discontinued attending the meetings as a result, but desires to return.

Parkersburg City Council has reportedly conducted the practice for the past decade, which is followed by the Pledge of Allegiance.

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FFRF sent a letter of complaint to then-Council President J.R. Carpenter in 2015, and received a response from the city attorney outlining that the council had been advised, “1. Any prayer should be conducted (and as it already is) prior to calling the meeting to order; 2. The public should not be invited to stand or otherwise participate in the prayer; and 3. No elected official should lead the prayer.”

FFRF argues that it does not matter that the prayer is recited before the meeting is called to order, and notes that city council members continue to lead the Lord’s Prayer at each meeting and sometimes ask attendees to stand.

“The city council has a religious purpose, rather than a secular purpose, in reciting the Lord’s Prayer at City Council meetings. The city council’s recitation of the Lord’s Prayer has the primary effect of both advancing religion and expressing defendant’s preference for Christianity above all other religions and nonreligion. Through its policy and custom of opening each meeting with the Lord’s Prayer, the city council has entangled the city with a religious practice and an official religious message,” the lawsuit asserts.

The complainants seek a declaratory judgment that the practice is unconstitutional, as well as an injunction prohibiting the Parkersburg City Council from delivering “sectarian” prayers during public meetings.

View FFRF’s lawsuit in full here.

Adams

As previously reported, throughout America’s early history, a number of the Founding Fathers issued proclamations calling inhabitants to prayer, including in 1798, when President John Adams proclaimed a national day of humiliation, prayer and fasting.

“As the safety and prosperity of nations ultimately and essentially depend on the protection and blessing of Almighty God, and the national acknowledgment of this truth is not only an indispensable duty which the people owe to Him,” he wrote, “…this duty, at all times incumbent, is so especially in seasons of difficulty and of danger, when existing or threatening calamities—the just judgments of God against prevalent iniquity—are a loud call to repentance and reformation.”

President Abraham Lincoln also proclaimed a National Fast Day in 1863.

“[I]t is the duty of nations as well as of men to own their dependence upon the overruling power of God, to confess their sins and transgressions in humble sorrow, yet with assured hope that genuine repentance will lead to mercy and pardon; and to recognize the sublime truth, announced in the Holy Scriptures and proven by all history, that those nations only are blessed whose God is the Lord,” his proclamation read.

“[I]nsomuch we know that by His Divine law, nations like individuals are subjected to punishments and chastisements in this world, may we not justly fear that the awful calamity of civil war, which now desolates the land, may be but a punishment inflicted upon us for our presumptuous sins, to the needful end of our national reformation as a whole people,” Lincoln said.

According to the office of the chaplain of the U.S. House of Representatives, the first prayer of the Continental Congress was presented on Sept. 7, 1774 by Jacob Duche of Christ Church of Philadelphia, and was delivered in the name of Jesus.

“O Lord our Heavenly Father, high and mighty King of kings, and Lord of lords, who dost from thy throne behold all the dwellers on earth and reignest with power supreme and uncontrolled over all the kingdoms, empires and governments,” he prayed, “look down in mercy, we beseech Thee, on these our American States, who have fled to Thee from the rod of the oppressor and thrown themselves on Thy gracious protection, desiring to be henceforth dependent only on Thee.”


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