Give council prayer-givers the grace not to offend

ROGER SIMON

June 26, 1992|By ROGER SIMON

It will be OK for Ocean City council members to call upon God at their future meetings, but they can no longer get personal about it.

Responding to a complaint by the American Civil Liberties Union Maryland, the council recently agreed in executive session to abandon any references to "Jesus," "Christ," "Your Son, our Lord and Savior" or "the Father who sent His Son to earth" in the prayers that precede council meetings.

"I never realized I was saying anything wrong," Mayor Roland E. "Fish" Powell, who offers about half the prayers at the meetings, told me yesterday. "After I got a letter from the ACLU, I called the Lutheran minister in town and asked him what I was doing wrong. And he told me: 'You should not say Jesus Christ.' And so I won't anymore."

Powell wrote back to the ACLU saying: "You may be assured that we will do our utmost not to offend anyone in our opening prayers at all future meetings."

The other person who offers the prayers, Councilwoman Sally Hacking, is equally remorseful. "I had not intended to offend, but in looking back on it, I was offensive," she said. "And I'm sorry and I will stop."

So what in God's name is still permitted at council meetings?

HTC "That is a good question," said Stuart Comstock-Gay, executive director of the ACLU Foundation of Maryland. "What is permitted is so-called 'secular' prayer. A generic 'God,' if you will."

What about the word "Lord"?

"That would be OK," Comstock-Gay said.

How about "Father?"

"That's on the line," Comstock-Gay said.

Which may be a problem because that is the word that Hacking is now using in an attempt to be non-offensive.

Hacking opened Ocean City's last council meeting by saying: "Father, we recognize the power of prayer and through our individual beliefs we pray tonight."

Which may cross the line if you believe "Father" implies a "Son." But if you believe "Father" means father of everybody, then that is OK.

Unless you're an atheist, that is, in which case you are still angry.

"I started the prayers when I became mayor after Harry Kelly died in 1985," Powell said. "I don't know all the rules of religion. I just offer a humble prayer from my heart and soul."

But the ACLU says that when Powell and Hacking made references to Jesus, they were excluding some members of the community.

"Complaining residents are deeply offended by the nature of the prayers and feel their rights to participate in our representative democracy are being foreclosed by the Council's open endorsement of Christianity," Comstock-Gay wrote the council.

Comstock-Gay said that between Nov. 4, 1991, and March 2, 1992, the council used prayers "of an overtly Christian nature" on at least eight occasions.

"About eight weeks ago, a local reporter, who is Jewish, did bring my prayers to my attention," Hacking said. "And I agreed that they could offend and I stopped doing them. And then I slipped."

Hacking's slip came at a meeting a few weeks ago when she asked "Jesus Christ to look down upon the mayor and council."

She says she will avoid such references in the future. "I have offered to let many others say the prayer," she said, "but they don't want to do it."

It is perfectly OK, of course, for individuals in Ocean City to call upon any deity by any name they wish. The issue here deals with governmental bodies and the Constitution's guarantee that government will not promote or hinder religion.

Comstock-Gay said he appreciates the way in which Ocean City has responded to the ACLU's complaint and feels the council is now complying with the Constitution. But the ACLU actually would prefer no prayers at all at governmental meetings.

"It would be far better if Ocean City began its council meetings with a moment of silence," he said. "Not a moment of silence in which people are asked to pray, but just a moment of silence in which people could do whatever they wanted."

But Mayor Powell says the prayers will continue, though without references to Jesus.

"People like our prayers," he said. "Though I am going to change mine. But I've got to say this: I never know what is going to come out of my mouth until I open it. So if I make a mistake in the future, I am apologizing now."

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