by Walter Brasch
For at least 17 years, the officials of Monroeville, Pa., a 30,000 population Pittsburgh suburb, have recited the Lord’s Prayer before every council meeting.
This violates the First Amendment. And it’s not even a gray area. Finally, the ACLU sent the council a letter, threatening to file a lawsuit.
The response by Bruce Dice, the city solicitor, was that the council will try its best to abide by the Constitution, and will make changes. Dice, who has been solicitor since 1998, says government “should not be sponsoring prayer or direct residents about religion.”
At its Jan. 12 meeting, the Council will consider an ordinance to have different members of the clergy, representing different religions, deliver prayers at each meeting. The decision of who will lead the council and residents in prayer will be on a “first come, first served” basis, says Dice. There are 25 Christian churches—21 Protestant, two Roman Catholic, two Serbian Catholic—and two synagogues in Monroeville. Thus, it is entirely possible that 12 Protestant ministers will be the “first come, first served” clergy to lead prayer services. The proposed ordinance does not address religious diversity, but is specific there will be a prayer at the beginning of every meeting, thus continuing to fuse government and religion.
When the ACLU sent its letter to the Council, many residents stood firm in their beliefs about Christianity and prayer at council meetings.
One resident claimed he was offended not by the Christian prayer, but by the ACLU. A minister claimed, “We’re all tired of losing rights.”
No one is losing any rights. The right to violate the Constitution does not exist.
One council member said he wouldn’t be quiet and would continue the practice, much to the applause of many residents, few of whom read or understand the Constitution.
Mayor Greg Erosenko, who led the prayers, added his voice. Using the terrorist attack in San Bernardino, he said, “It’s very sad that we have come to this, taking what happened in California. Not just Monroeville, but I think our whole country needs a lot of prayer.” He said he was a devout Christian, and that the nation was founded on the Christian faith.
He’s also wrong. The Founding Fathers were specific in stating that the nation was not founded on the Christian faith, that people have a right to their own beliefs, and that there must be a separation of church and state. Many of the Founding Fathers—including Washington, Jefferson, Franklin, and Thomas Paine, whose pamphlet, Common Sense, was one of the most important works of journalism that led the charge to independence—were deists, not Christians.
The Monroeville Council recognizes reality. A continued violation would have resulted in a federal lawsuit. It would cost the taxpayers a lot of money—and they would lose.
If the seven-member Council supports the proposed ordinance of having a rotation of prayers and religions, the issue is back into a gray area of separation of church and state, but it does reduce the dominance of a municipal government supporting one religion.
The only major question is why did it take a threat from the ACLU for the solicitor and Council to make the change to abide by the First Amendment to the Constitution?
[Dr. Brasch is an award-winning journalist who is also professor emeritus of mass communications from Bloomsburg University, where he taught First Amendment issues, as well as public affairs reporting, feature writing, and media editing and production courses. His latest book is Fracking Pennsylvania.]