Sussex council offers compromise on Lord's PrayerNew proposal would include nonsectarian prayers at meetings
Georgetown — Sussex County Council's recitation of The Lord's Prayer at its June 12 meeting may well be the last time the council uses the prayer exclusively.
Following more than two hours behind closed doors in an executive session, council emerged and voted 3-2 on parameters for a Thursday, June 14 mediation session in federal court in Wilmington in hopes of meeting a Friday, June 15, court-ordered settlement deadline.
If settlement is not reached, U.S. District Court Judge Leonard P. Stark's court-ordered injunction will go into place, and council will be prohibited from saying The Lord's Prayer to start a meeting.
Under council's mediation plan, The Lord's Prayer would still be used, but not every week. The mediation proposal calls for President Mike Vincent to lead an invocation saying a nonsectarian prayer as well as the occasional use of The Lord's Prayer.
In addition, council voted 5-0 to hire The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty to “help advise on legal options” during mediation. Vincent had already hired the firm to represent him because he was named individually in the lawsuit filed against council by Americans United for Separation of Church and State on behalf of four Sussex County residents.
Voting against the proposal were councilmen Vance Phillips, R-Laurel, and Sam Wilson, R-Georgetown.
“It's the end of a 40-year tradition as far as I'm concerned,” Phillips said as council prepared to open its June 12 meeting with the Lord's Prayer. “Today, it has greater meaning.”
As council reassembled following its executive session, it was evident how the vote was headed; Phillips sat silently with his head in his hands.
Voting for the proposed compromise were council members Mike Vincent, R-Seaford; Joan Deaver, D-Rehoboth Beach; and George Cole, R-Ocean View.
Becket Fund attorney Luke Goodrich said just because council has granted the legal team the authority to make the proposal on council's behalf does not mean it would be accepted.
Also attending the meeting was Federal Magistrate Judge Sherry Fallon, who is acting as mediator in the case. She participated in part of the executive session to answer council's questions.
On May 15, Stark issued a 30-day stay of a preliminary injunction against council's use of The Lord's Prayer in the hope an out-of-court settlement could be reached. “It is hoped that during this period the parties may confer and attempt to agree upon how to preserve the council's practice of opening its meetings with a prayer but to do so in a manner that is consistent with the United States and Delaware constitutions,” wrote Stark.
Stark said council's longstanding practice of starting each meeting with the recitation of the Protestant version of the prayer likely violates the Establishment Clause because it constitutes government endorsement of the Christian faith.
The ruling in Mullin v. Sussex County does not mean council must abandon its policy of opening meetings with a prayer, but it will have to change its practice of reciting only The Lord's Prayer.
In his decision, Stark wrote, “The fact that The Lord's Prayer has been the only prayer recited at the beginning of council meetings for over six years is likely to be found to demonstrate that the council gives Christianity an unconstitutionally preferred status, sending a message to meeting attendees that the council is promoting the beliefs of Christianity.”
Stark said numerous federal courts, relying on the landmark case of Marsh v. Chambers in 1983, have held that delivery of sectarian prayers at legislative meetings is unconstitutional because these prayers affiliate the government with a specific faith. In addition, he said, numerous courts have concluded that The Lord's Prayer is a Christian, sectarian prayer. “It is likely the court will ultimately find The Lord's Prayer to be a Christian prayer,” he wrote.
Waiting outside council chambers while officials met in executive session, several people talked about the issue.
“Our country was founded on Christian principles, and I think saying a prayer is what our founding fathers wanted,” said Phillip Ruiz, pastor of City Church Refuge in Milford. “I'm not for denying anyone else's freedom of religion, but I want my rights as a Christian not to be denied as well.”
Ruiz said he was not opposed to the proposed concession offered by council to offer nonsectarian prayers as well as The Lord's Prayer.
Charles Williams, assistant to the pastor at Church of Oak Orchard, said the legislative prayer issue would ultimately be decided in the U.S. Supreme Court. “That is who we need to pray for,” he said.