Henrico supervisors erred in reviving public prayer

Henrico County’s Board of Supervisors recently resumed its practice of permitting religious leaders to engage in a moment of public prayer prior to its twice-monthly public meetings.

This is an unfortunate mistake – and one that is surprising, given Henrico’s progressive nature.

The board reintroduced the invocation practice – which it had eliminated in 2012 and replaced with a moment of silence – following the U.S. Supreme Court’s May decision that the Town Board of Greece, N.Y. was not violating the Constitution by allowing similar prayer offerings prior to its public meetings.

In his majority opinion, Supreme Court justice Anthony Kennedy wrote that the prayers are legal in part because they do not "coerce participation by nonadherents." That may well be the case in Greece, N.Y., and here, in Henrico, but it doesn’t make them necessary – or right.

The high court's decision is akin to saying that it's ok for public schools to offer only desks made for right-handed students, since most students are right-handed. Left-handers, the court might reason, aren't being coerced to become right-handers – therefore they should have no problem with the desks.

To be clear: The right of any individual to practice any religion he or she chooses – or none at all – is among the most important rights our nation grants its citizens and must be protected at virtually any cost.

But aside from protecting that right, government ought not involve itself in religion – a personal matter and an individual decision. By establishing a specific time during its public meetings for the offering of prayers – even though it has opened the floor to religious leaders of all persuasions and legally also must open it to those of none – the Henrico Board of Supervisors is doing just that.

The board's decision is misguided for several reasons:

• It is not directly relevant to the matters for which the county government in general, and the Board of Supervisors in particular, is responsible.

The Board of Supervisors sets county law, local tax rates, adopts an annual budget and votes on matters of land use, among other responsibilities. Each of these is relevant to, or involves in some way, each legal citizen of the county. Henrico laws apply to all citizens. All citizens are subject to Henrico taxes and are affected by how the county spends those tax dollars, or by how land in the county is developed.

But not all citizens are affected by religion. The board cannot legally enact any religious mandates, and therefore it shouldn’t engage in any religious discourse, either.

Government has a responsibility to be inclusive to all of its citizens – every last one – regardless of their employment status, education level, financial situation, relationship status or religious affiliation, among many other characteristics. And though not every citizen will agree with the actions that elected government bodies take, those actions should be taken only on issues over which government actually has authority and those that impact each citizen directly in some way.

Religion fits neither category.

What makes us unique as a nation (and as a county) is our ability to be inclusive – even at the expense of some of the desires we individually might otherwise choose to endorse or practice publicly. This is particularly true of the actions of government, which must act with its entire constituency in mind at all times.

• Religion is a personal matter, not a government matter.

Henrico citizens make many personal choices in their lives: where to live, where to work, who to date or marry, where to vacation, how to spend free time, whether to practice religion. Religion is an important part of the personal lives of many people – likely even a majority of all Henrico citizens.

But there are many other beliefs, values or personal activities that a majority of Henrico citizens have in common, too. Should the board set aside time at its meetings specifically for the discussion of those matters – such as sports, travel, property ownership, television or literature – also?

Assuredly not. Because they, like religion, do not involve (and should not be influenced by) government.

Providing time solely for religious discourse implies that the government has chosen to elevate religious views above all other aspects of a citizen’s individual life, which is a curious and dangerous precedent to set. (The same unwanted precedent would exist, incidentally, were the board to set aside time specifically for atheists to speak.)

Henrico officials have been quoted as saying that the prayers offered prior to Board of Supervisors’ meetings are “tradition” in the county and therefore shouldn’t be viewed through any other lens. But tradition alone rarely is a good reason to do much of anything – and more often than not indicates a lack of defensible reasons for which to take a particular action in the first place.

It is worth noting that no other governmental body in Henrico County begins its public proceedings with a moment of prayer. That list includes the elected School Board and the appointed Planning Commission and Board of Zoning Appeals, as well as the county’s Circuit Court and General District Court.

• It creates an aura of inequality.

The county’s guidelines advise those issuing prayers not to proselytize those in attendance and not to denigrate those who are not religious or who are members of religious minorities.

But actions speak louder than words. By specifically designating time for religious discourse as part of its own meetings – while not doing so for any other personal matter of interest to a majority of citizens – isn’t the board inherently suggesting that religion is a more important part of civic involvement than any other personal matter?

Government should not place any burden on minorities of any type – particularly in matters over which it has no authority. Consider that a majority of Henrico residents are white. Suppose the board set aside several minutes prior to the start of each meeting specifically for whites of all backgrounds to speak, then defended that action by outlining guidelines that required the white speakers not to denigrate attendees of other ethnicities.

Would that suffice? Would it be acceptable? Of course not. An objective observer would view the action as inherently unfair to other races and ethnicities and would conclude that the board held whites in greater reverence that it did citizens of other races.

The same conclusions are easily drawn of religion in this case.

• Such a forum already exists.

The idea of establishing a moment for public prayer is, theoretically, to allow for a moment of public religious prayer. But the court’s decision reaffirmed that non-believers cannot be prevented from offering comment during the prayer period. This in essence renders the entire idea of a moment of prayer meaningless. What's the point of having a public prayer if an atheist is legally permitted to issue it?

The court essentially has permitted a moment of prayer. . . or a moment of anti-prayer. . . or perhaps a moment of discussion about anything else that a non-believer might want to discuss – thereby making that moment something potentially very unlike prayer and much more like an open forum for public comment.

Yes – the very same type of forum that already exists at every single Board of Supervisors meeting (and has for years). Anyone can address the board for a period of several minutes about any topic he or she wishes. The establishment of additional time at the beginning of a board meeting to offer essentially the same opportunity is redundant and unnecessary.

• It overlooks an obvious solution.

The county's guidelines to those who wish to speak during the moment of prayer suggest that their offerings “reflect upon the gravity of the occasion and unite [board members] in their common effort of governing,” while providing “universal values in order to send a message of welcome and unity."

These are noble thoughts and worthy of public consumption, but they are not unique to religion and need not be cloaked in religion to be effectively heard.

The board would be better served by penning a non-sectarian mission statement that offers such views, then reading it aloud prior to each meeting. It could take a cue from the Henrico School Board, which has done something very similar for several years.

E-mail Citizen Publisher Tom Lappas at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).
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The Henrico County Health Department will offer free flu vaccinations to the public from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. at the Mount Vernon Adult Education Center, 7850 Carousel Ln., and from 1 p.m. to 7 p.m. at the East Henrico Health Clinic, 1400 N. Laburnum Ave. The clinics will provide standard-dose flu vaccine to individuals age three and older on a first-come, first-served basis, while supplies last. In addition to the flu vaccine, the Henrico County Health Department will offer free home-screening kits for colorectal cancer to qualifying individuals. For details, visit http://www.henrico.us/health. Full text

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