Supervisor Lori Simpson said that she prays before, during and after Tuesday board meetings — and she still can, but prayer will no longer be part of the regular agenda.
That’s the decision reached by the Plumas County Board of Supervisors during its Jan. 15 meeting.
Historically, the board opens its meetings with an invocation from a member of the local clergy, followed by the flag salute.
Last August the board received a letter from the Freedom From Religion Foundation objecting to the practice.
The group objects to prayer at government meetings as being “unnecessary, inappropriate and divisive,” but in the case of Plumas County described it as “unconstitutional” because the invocations are given almost exclusively by the pastor of one Christian church.
Deputy County Counsel Stephen Mansell said that the group did not explicitly threaten a lawsuit, but has done so throughout the country in similar situations.
Indeed, a visit to the group’s website revealed a number of actions against government institutions and schools. Some involved lawsuits, but many of the governmental bodies caved to the group’s demands, fearing the cost of legal fees.
In a recommendation letter to the supervisors, Mansell said that the U.S. Supreme Court has held that invocations given at meetings are “generally constitutional” but didn’t provide additional direction. Recent lower court decisions have upheld the practice of invocations in some circumstances.
Mansell suggested adopting the city of Lancaster’s policy as a model because it has already been upheld in federal court as constitutional and several other jurisdictions have adopted similar policies.
The key components are to create a list of speakers to give invocations and to establish a rotating schedule.
“This is an inclusive policy that will provide for a diverse selection of invocational speakers while preventing denominational discrimination or preference,” Mansell advised in his letter.
But during his presentation directly to board, Mansell said that it would “make my job easier if we got rid of the invocation altogether or move to a moment of silence.”
Mansell said using a rotating schedule of diverse speakers would be easier to implement in a more urban area.
Supervisor Sherrie Thrall said with a smile that while she appreciated “people praying that I have wisdom, I do believe strongly in separation of church and state.”
She said it could be complicated to implement a rotating schedule and asked if a moment of silence would also elicit the threat of a lawsuit.
Mansell said that it would be easier to defend.
“I totally agree with separation of church and state,” Supervisor Jon Kennedy said, but still he bristled that “one of these groups who will never step foot in Plumas County,” could influence the board’s practices.
Kennedy asked if a prayer during public comment would be allowed.
“If it’s not a setup, it’s permissible,” Mansell replied.
Public Works Director Bob Perreault urged the supervisors to continue with the prayer.
“You are kowtowing to what the demand is,” Perreault said. He suggested that the supervisors adopt the resolution, but rather than seeking out speakers, ask religious leaders to identify themselves as interested.
Pastor George Tarleton, of the First Baptist Church of Quincy, who usually says the invocation, as he did that morning, said, “Most of the pastors aren’t interested.”
“I’m perturbed that an organization from across the country threatens us,” Board Chairman Terry Swofford said.
The board discussed the option of continuing the prayer until the group filed suit, but Mansell said the county could be held responsible for attorney fees that Freedom From Religion Foundation incurred to that point.
Ultimately the board decided to strike the invocation from the regular agenda, and upon Supervisor Kevin Goss’ suggestion consider another resolution at a later date.
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