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Letter to Sarasota County Commission re Prayers at Meetings

Letter to Sarasota County Commission re Prayers at Meetings

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Categories:Types, Business/Law
Published by: Appignani Humanist Legal Center on Mar 08, 2011
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03/08/2011

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March 3, 2011Commissioners Mason, Barbetta, Robinson, Patterson and ThaxtonSarasota County Commission1660 Ringling Blvd.Sarasota, Florida 34236cmason@scgov.net, jbarbett@scgov.net, crobinson@scgov.net,npatters@scgov.net, jthaxton@scgov.netStephen E. DeMarshOffice of the County Attorney1660 Ringling Blvd.Sarasota, Florida 34236sdemarsh@scgov.net
Re: Prayer at Sarasota County Commission Meetings
 Mr. DeMarsh and the above-named commissioners:I am writing on behalf of a Sarasota County resident and taxpayer to alert you to a seriousseparation of church and state concern. We have recently been notified that meetings of theSarasota County Commission begin with official public
 
prayers. The American HumanistAssociation is a national nonprofit organization with over 10,000 members and 20,000supporters across the country, including members in Florida (AHA has 16 local chapters inFlorida, the second most of any state, including one in Sarasota). Our purpose is to protect theprinciples of the federal and state constitutions that require separation of church and state.
1
 
See
Koerner v. Borck 
, 100 So. 2d 398, 401 (Fla. 1958) (holding that the First Amendment‟sEstablishment Clause is intended to erect a “wall of separation between church and state”).
2
 It appears that every regular Sarasota County Commission meeting begins with a publicprayer. The audio recordings of meetings posted on the c
ounty‟s
website reveal that eachmeeting from March 2010 through February 2011 opened with a prayer referencing
“God,”“Almighty God,” “Heavenly Father,” or “Lord,” and
ending
with “amen.”
At nearly all of these
1
The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution
provides in part: “Congress shall make no law respecting an
establishment of religion.
Art. 1 Sec. 3 of the Florida Constitution provides in part: “There shall be no lawrespecting the establishment of religion or prohibiting or penalizing the free exercise thereof.”
2
 
See also
Reynolds v. United States
,
98 U.S. 145, 164 (1878) (stating that the phrase
make no law respecting anestablishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof . . . build[s] a wall of separation between church
and State.”).
 
2
 
meetings, the public was asked to rise immediately before the prayer.
3
Even more egregious,however, were the meetings in which attendees were asked not only to stand but also to bowtheir heads in prayer.
4
Given these facts, we have reason to believe that the county
‟s actions are
in violation of the Establishment Clause
.
 First, the references to a transparently biblical
“God,” “Almighty God,” “HeavenlyFather,” or “Lord” (and “amen”) in every invocation amounts to an unconstitutional
governmental endorsement of (1) one religion (Christianity) over other religions, and (2) moregenerally, of religion over non-religion.
5
Pursuant to
the Supreme Court‟s ruling in
Marsh v.Chambers
,
463 U.S. 783 (1983), legislative prayers are unconstitutional if they attempt to
“proselytize or advance any one
. . .
faith or belief.”
Id.
at 794-95. In County of Allegheny v.ACLU
,
492 U.S. 573 (1989), the Supreme Court explained that Marsh
 
could not be read to
“justify
. . . legislative prayers that have the effect of affiliating the government with any one
specific faith or belief.”
Id.
at 603In applying Marsh, the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals, which includes Florida in itsjurisdiction, rejected
the importance of the supposedly “nonsectarian” nature of prayers at local
government meetings in deciding their constitutionality, or even the coherence of that idea,stating that the court
would not know where to begin to demarcate the boundary between
sectarian and nonsectarian expressions.”
 
See
Pelphrey v. Cobb County, Ca
.,
547 F.3d 1263,1272 (11
th
Cir. 2008). In upholding the particular legislative prayers at issue in Pelphrey, thecourt relied on the fact that those prayers did not advance or affiliate the government with
any
 specific faith.
The court observed that the “diverse references in the prayers,” includ
ing to
“Allah,” “Mohammed,” and the “Torah,” made it such that the prayers did not “advance anyparticular faith.”
Id.
at 1277-78.
 
Unlike the prayers at issue in Pelphrey,
Sarasota‟s prayers do
not pass constitutional muster. The prayers are not offered by private members of a variety of 
faiths, nor do they reference deities other than the obviously biblical “God” or “HeavenlyFather.” Accordingly, the
county
‟s
prayers create the perception that the countyunconstitutionally endorses Christianity (and, more generally, religion over non-religion) inviolation of the Establishment Clause.The fact that Sarasota County
‟s
prayers are delivered by government officials andemployees
6
heightens our Establishment Clause concerns. The Supreme Court has held that the
3
The commissioner asked the public to stand before each prayer, by stating
“please rise if you‟re able” in the
following meetings: February 22, 2011, February 8, January 11, 2011, December 17, 2010, December 8, 2010,December 7, 2010, December 1, November 30, November 16, November 10, November 9, October 27, October 26,October 13, October 12, September 29, September 28, September 15, September 14, July 27, July 14, July 13, June23, June 22, June 8, May 26, May 25, May 12, May 11, April 28, March 23, March 17, March 16, 2010.
4
For instance, the invocation by Kimberley Lance on January 11, 2011, stated (after the commissioner askedeveryone to stand):
Please bow our heads, let us pray, Almighty Father. A
men”
; the invocation by John McCarthyon December 1, 2010, stated (after th
e commissioner asked everyone to stand): “
Let us bow our heads ... lord as we...
amen.”
5
 
See
Brown v. Orange County Bd. of Public Instruction, 128 So. 2d 181 (1960) (holding that the First Amendment
forbids preferential treatment by government, Federal or State, of one sect or religion over others
), Epperson v.Arkansas
, 393 U.S. 97, 104 (holding that the “First Amendment requires governmental neutrality between . . .religion and nonreligion.”) and
School Dist. of Abington v. Schempp, 374 U.S. 203, 216 (1963) (same).
6
It appears that every invocation given at every regular meeting held in the past 11 months was a governmentofficial, such as the Health and Human Services Program Analyst (January 25. 2011), Planning and Development
 
3
 
government is without authority
to prescribe any “particular form of prayer which is to be usedas an official prayer in carrying on any program of governmentally sponsored religious activity.”
 Engel v. Vitale
,
370 U.S. 421, 430 (1962).
7
In Engel,
 
the Supreme Court held that “the
constitutional prohibition against laws respecting an establishment of religion must at least meanthat in this country it is no part of the business of government to compose official prayers for anygroup of the American people to recite as a part of a religious program carried on by
government.”
Id.
at 425. Thus, when Sarasota County officials compose and recite prayers atpublic meetings and ask the public to participate in these prayers (by standing, or, even moreoutrageously, bowing their heads), the County is in violation of the Establishment Clause.(The county
‟s
prayers are unmistakably composed by the government employeesdelivering them, as evinced, for example, by the prayer delivered by Administration OperationsAdministrative Specialist Kathy Petz on May 12, 2010, asking her
“Dear Lord” for a “specialblessing for”
her son
.)By reciting and coercing others to join in prayers composed and delivered bygovernmental employees, the county is infringing upon the rights of each individual to chose toworship (or not to worship at all) in his or her own way.
Id.
As the Supreme Court noted inEngel,
“[i]t is neither sacrilegious nor antireligious to say that each separate governm
ent in thiscountry should stay out of the business of writing or sanctioning official prayers and leave thatpurely religious function to the people themselves and to those the people choose to look to for
religious guidance.”
Id.
at 435. We simply ask that Sarasota leave the purely religious act of prayer to the people by discontinuing the practice of beginning county meetings with aninvocation. Indeed,
the purposes underlying the Establishment Clause . . . rested on the belief that a union of govern
ment and religion tends to destroy government and to degrade religion.”
Id.
at 431. By delivering prayers at public meetings, the county is not only violating the law butalso degrading the very religion it seeks to promote.
8
 Because the prayer at county meetings is delivered by government officials, the county
exacerbates the “official” nature of its prayer (as proscribed by the Supreme Court in
Engel).
9
 
Services Executive Director (December 17. 2010), Community Services Parks and Recreation General Manager(December 1. 2010), Planning and Development Services Assistant (November 10, 2010), Clerk of the CircuitBoard Records Management (October 27, 2010), Chief Financial Planning Officer (September 29, 2010),Environmental Services Solid Waste Collections Manager (September 28, 2010), Operations and MaintenanceServices Executive Director (July 13, 2010), Capital Management Services Operations Manager (June 22, 2010),Health and Human Services Environmental Supervisor (May 11, 2010), Emergency Services Fire Chief (April 13,2010), Administrative Specialist (March 23, 2010).
7
 
See, also
Borden v. School Dist. of Tp. of East Brunswick, 523 F.3d 153, 174 (3
rd
Cir. 2008) (holding that a highschool violated the Establishment Clause because its football coach
s extensive involvement with the team
sprayers, which he organized, participated in, and led, would lead a reasonable observer to conclude that the coachwas not merely showing respect when he bowed his head and took a knee with his teams but was instead endorsingreligion).
8
 
Consider that the Bible indicates that Jesus, in the Sermon on the Mount, condemned public prayer:
And whenyou pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners tobe seen by others . . . But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, which is insecret
.”
(Matthew 6:5-13).
 
9
 
See,
Borden v. School Dist. of Tp. of East Brunswick, 523 F.3d 153, 174 (3
rd
Cir. 2008) (holding that a high schoolviolated the Establishment Clause because its football coach
s extensive involvement with the team
s prayers, which

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