Cape Gazette

Sussex County prayer under fire

May 19, 2009
Before the start of each Sussex County Council meeting, Council President Vance Phillips, R-Laurel, bows his head and leads council in the Lord’s Prayer.

Americans United for Separation of Church and State contends that specific prayer violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, which prohibits government from showing preference for one religion.

According to the group, legislative bodies can open sessions with prayer only if it is nonsectarian – if the prayer does not use language or symbols specific to one religion. The Lord’s Prayer is considered a Christian prayer.

For the second time in two years, Sussex County Council has been put on notice by Americans United for Separation of Church and State that starting each meeting with the Lord’s Prayer and sponsoring the annual Sussex County Council Prayer Breakfast violates the Constitution.

In an April 28 letter, the organization requested prompt attention and also any actions council planned to take with respect to the violations. No public mention of the letter or any action has been made by council.

The prayer breakfast went on as planned Friday, May 15, with Phillips providing the welcome and members of council sitting on the stage.

“It’s a 32-year tradition that has been a resounding success, and why would you tamper with a good thing?” Phillips asked.

Letter discussed in executive session

The three-page letter was mailed to each member of council. Yet, if not for the actions of one member of council, the public would not know the letter was even sent.

Councilwoman Joan Deaver, who said the letter was discussed behind closed doors during a recent executive session, was not pleased the letter was not made public.

So, she released it to her constituency late last week. “I know I am going to suffer for this, but this letter is public information in my opinion,” she said.

Phillips said he would not comment on a matter that was the subject of an executive session. He also would not comment on the specific criteria under which it was considered for executive session discussion – pending litigation, land purchase or personnel matters – or who placed the matter on an executive session agenda.

He did say the opening prayer was a good thing, steeped in tradition. “I’ve always run on traditional values, and this is a tradition that is not hurting anyone,” he said.

In the letter, which is almost a carbon copy of another letter sent to council in June 2008, Americans United cites numerous decisions to back up its claims that sponsoring the annual prayer breakfast is impermissible and the Lord’s Prayer violates the constitutional prohibition on sectarian prayer and should be discontinued.

The group says the Lord’s Prayer is a Christian prayer drawn from the New Testament and is therefore sectarian, citing seven cases that have upheld that sectarian, inclusive-language prayers before legislatures and other representative public bodies are unconstitutional.

Prayer breakfast in third decade

Although the county solicits sponsors and charges for tickets to cover expenses associated with the prayer breakfast, staff is involved in coordinating the event.

Americans United claims a government must act in a neutral manner when it comes to religion and may not endorse one religion over another religion. In Newman v. City of East Point (2002), the court held the “Mayor in her official capacity and City of East Point [were barred by the Establishment Clause] from organizing, advertising, promoting or endorsing” a city prayer breakfast, and “from using city resources or employees on city time for organizing, advertising or endorsing” the breakfast.

“In anticipation of this year’s breakfast, the county’s official website already advertises that Sussex County will host the 32nd annual Prayer Breakfast on May 15, and the county has issued a press release about the event,” the letter stated.

The group writes: “In order to comply with constitutional requirements, the county must remove itself from any organizational, advertising or promotional role in the prayer breakfast. Of course, county officials may continue to participate in prayer breakfasts and other religious activities on their own time, so long as it is clear they do so in their private rather than their official capacities.”

Deaver, who was the only member of council not to attend the prayer breakfast, said she is not taking a side by releasing the letter. “I have had comments on both sides,” she said. She noted there is a lot of misinformation about Americans United for Separation of Church and State. “They are not trying to keep people from praying,” she said.

Jim Griffin, county attorney, did not return a phone call.

Group promotes separation of church, state

According to, Americans United for Separation of Church and State is a nonpartisan organization dedicated to preserving the constitutional principle of church-state separation as the only way to ensure religious freedom for all Americans. The group, based in Washington, D.C., and formed in 1947, works on a wide range of political and social issues with the goal of protecting church-state separation including pulpit-based politicking, helping individuals protect their right to freedom of religion, religion and prayer in public schools, taxpayer-supported religious initiatives, government-sponsored religion and court issues.
American United’s executive director is the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, a United Church of Christ minister and attorney.

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