"The trouble with the world is that the stupid are cocksure and the intelligent are full of doubt." -- Bertrand Russell

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Sectarian Prayer at the Roanoke Board of Supervisors

The Roanoke Board of Supervisors has been having an illegal sectarian prayer at the beginning of their meetings for decades. The issue here is the explicit mention of Jesus in the prayer; according to a lawyer I spoke to from the Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF), legally, the Board can have prayer at their meetings so long as it's not a prayer from a specific religious persuasion. Of course, he also mentioned that this is not their preferred solution.

The FFRF has sent a letter to them indicating that this needs to stop. This situation is very similar to what happened in Giles, and it would really behove us to be involved. To read more about this issue, please see this excellent blog post at Cornelioid or the press release that our student organisation released (and I wrote using instruction from the CFI leadership conference I recently attended.)

On July 29th, I met with county attorney Paul Mahoney to discuss the situation and to see what some of the Board's proposed solutions were. This was after I had sent an e-mail to a few of the Board members to see if we could begin some kind of dialogue; they had put me in touch with Mahoney who asked if we could meet. A board member named Butch Church also sent me an e-mail, stating:
Thank you for your email.
I want to be involved in any discussion regarding our Board and this issue.
This is very important to me and the citizens that I represent!
Our county attorney does not necessarily represent all BOS members on this issue.
This is vague; I couldn't tell from this what Mr. Church's position was, though based on the cultural context I could probably guess. At any rate, it seemed slightly aggressive to me. I told that to a friend of mine, and she disagreed, saying that I was reading too much into it. Still, to get an e-mail from someone that I had not directly contacted demanding to be at every meeting where this issue was discussed -- that seemed a tad aggressive to me. Based on who attended and ran a recent rally on this issue, I don't think my suspicions were unjustified. But more on that in a moment.

Mahoney, a friend of mine, and myself met in a conference room in the Roanoke County Administrative building. Myself and a friend had lunch at an amazing Chinese restaurant across the street, and then found our way through the building. I have to say that Mahoney struck me as a nice, down to Earth guy.

We sat in a conference room, with sunlight streaming in from my right (and Mahoney's left.)

At one point early on in the conversation, I mentioned Mr. Church's e-mail. Mahoney said that hadn't seen it and wondered what it said. I brought up the e-mail on my phone (I actually already had it ready from when I was waiting in the reception area) but Mahoney stated that he didn't have his glasses. I read the e-mail to him, at which point he stated that he would have invited Mr. Church had he known that Mr. Church wanted to attend.

I began by asking Mahoney to describe what had been going on. Mahoney related that he could divulge some things, but not others. This was understandable; he was, after all, a lawyer. At the end of last May, his clients had received a letter from the FFRF. He talked to FFRF attorney Patrick Elliot about several alternatives to sectarian prayer.

Mahoney related that the board was still in discussion, having a "feeling out process at this juncture". There were several options that Mahoney said were on the table:

(1) No change
(2) Cut out all invocations
(3) Moment of silence
(4) "Chesterfield county model" -- non-sectarian prayer

Mahoney stated that the current process used to select clergy was based on two methods:

(5) A historical list (i.e. a list who they had contact with in the past)
(6) Reach out based on public sources, such as phone books

Currently, the county clerk uses these two methods to identify clergy willing to give the invocation.

I asked if they had considered an open forum, and Mahoney indicated that there had been either no or very little discussion of this. However, there is a citizen comment process already in place that "works well in general". I encouraged him to talk about the open forum model with his clients.

I asked how long the practice had been around. Mahoney stated that he had been the county lawyer since 1984 and that it had been that way since then. He stated that most virginia jurisdictions do something like this to some extant, though he said that he didn't think Vinton did.

He stressed that the Board of Supervisors was not monolithic in opinion. He stated that this was an "interesting issue that will trigger a lot of deeply felt and passionate feelings on all sides". He also stated that many of the staff focus more on the business side of things, and that this prayer was more of a philosophical/political issue that many people just wouldn't really think too much about. He said that the primary goal of the Board of Supervisors was business; the prayer is not a primary goal or concern.

In the time since my meeting with Mahoney, there has been a public rally to try to keep the prayer. According to the Roanoke Times:
Several local pastors, Rep. Bob Goodlatte and county supervisors Butch Church and Ed Elswick attended a news conference at the county's administration building Thursday evening calling for support of invocation at meetings. For nearly an hour, despite the heat and humidity, speakers rallied the fervent group, which frequently broke into applause and cries of "Amen."
 My suspicion that Mr. Church is at the center of this issue would seem to be largely correct.

1 comment:

  1. The phone book business (6) confused me back when i read the RT's article. What does this mean — skimming the Worship section in the yellow pages for pastors? Do they make sure to include all denominations of all local religions as well as secular celebrants? How is it that non-clergy individuals occasionally take the lead?

    I'm with your friend in reading nothing vicious in Church's email. It is a charged issue, and it does reflect seriously upon the Board and may bode costly litigation. (Under the circumstances, they may also be short on time and patience, though surely it could have been worded more diplomatically.)

    Thanks for keeping us posted.