Printed on: November 22, 2012

At public meetings, the fights over prayer drag on


WASHINGTON (AP) -- It happens every week at meetings in towns, counties and cities nationwide. A lawmaker or religious leader leads a prayer before officials begin the business of zoning changes, contract approvals and trash pickup.

But citizens are increasingly taking issue with these prayers, some of which have been in place for decades. At least five lawsuits around the country -- in California, Florida, Missouri, New York, and Tennessee -- are actively challenging pre-meeting prayers.

Lawyers on both sides say there is a new complaint almost weekly, though they don't always end up in court. When they do, it seems even courts are struggling to draw the line over the acceptable ways to pray. Some lawyers and lawmakers believe it's only a matter of time before the Supreme Court will weigh in to resolve the differences. The court has previously declined to take on the issue, but lawyers in a New York case plan to ask the justices in December to revisit it. And even if the court doesn't take that particular case, it could accept a similar one in the future.

Lawmakers who defend the prayers cite the nation's founders and say they're following a long tradition of prayer before public meetings. They say residents don't have to participate and having a prayer adds solemnity to meetings and serves as a reminder to do good work.

"It's a reassuring feeling," said Lakeland, Fla., Mayor Gow Fields of his city's prayers, which have led to an ongoing legal clash with an atheist group. The City Commission's meeting agenda now begins with a disclaimer that any prayer offered before the meeting is the "voluntary offering of a private citizen" and not being endorsed by the commission.