The Christian invocation held at the start of Longview City Council meetings since the 1950s is livin’ on a prayer.
In response to a citizen complaint, Mayor Don Jensen told the Kelso-Longview Ministerial Association last month it was “not acceptable” to invoke the name of Jesus Christ during the prayer because it could expose the city to a lawsuit.
Jensen told the group of Christian ministers that, alternatively, it could find people of other religious faiths to perform prayers. However, the association says that task is beyond its scope, though it wouldn’t oppose other faiths offering the invocation.
“It’s not my choice to stop this, but I don’t know how we can put our citizens at jeopardy and cost our city and our citizens a lot of money,” said Jensen, who met with the association upon the advice of the city attorney.
No one performed an invocation at last Thursday’s council meeting.
Ministerial Association president Mark Schmutz, who is pastor of Northlake Baptist Church, told the council during Thursday’s citizens’ comment period that association members no longer will be able to provide invocations at council meetings because they must remain true to their convictions. Because they believe there are other spiritual entities — such as demons and other gods cited in the Bible — the ministers’ prayers are specific about whom they call upon, he said.
“We need to be able to speak (Jesus’) name,” Schmutz said Monday, calling the development “sad” and “disappointing.”
“They’re asking us not to do what we’re (called) to do,” he said. “This is the one and only true God, and so we’re not trying to be against anybody — we’re just being clear about what we’re for.”
Longview resident Dan L. Smith, 69, said he has taken the podium at council meetings two or three times in the last 10 years to object to the invocation tradition. About two years ago, he began emailing the council to argue that people of other faiths — or no faith — shouldn’t have to endure a Christian prayer at a government meeting.
Everyone should feel welcome at a City Council meeting, he wrote in the email. He didn’t want to take the case to court, even though he “would undoubtedly win” based on prior court decisions on the issue, he wrote.
“All I am asking is that you remove ... the invocation from the council’s agenda and that you sever any council ties with the (ministerial association’s) responsibilities for the delivery of the invocation,” Smith wrote in a March 2012 email, which he copied to the city attorney. “I do fully realize that this may not be a popular thing for you to do, but as an elected public official it is the right thing to do.”
Smith attached to the email an article about a 2007 lawsuit challenging a North Carolina county board of commissioners’ practice of opening its meetings with usually Christian prayers. In 2011, the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that Forsyth County’s prayer practice violated the First Amendment, which bars the government from establishing any religion.
The appeals judge in the case wrote that legislative prayer must strive to be nondenominational and send a signal of welcome rather than inclusion. Prayers in a particular venue that “repeatedly suggest the government has put its weight behind a particular faith .... transgress the boundaries of the Establishment Clause,” Judge J. Harvey Wilkinson wrote. “Faith is as deeply important as it is deeply personal, and the government should not appear to suggest that some faiths have it wrong and others got it right.”
Longview City Attorney James McNamara said the U.S. Supreme Court law has made it clear that invocations can be given at city council meetings.
“The more unclear answer is whether the prayer can invoke the name of Jesus Christ,” he said Monday, adding that different courts have reached different conclusions on the matter.
Monday, Smith said he’s been in frequent contact with the Americans United Against Church and State about his concerns with the Longview council’s invocation. Although interested in the case, the group isn’t ready to take legal action in Longview — yet, he said.
Smith, who describes himself as a “very comfortable athiest,” said Monday that some devout Christians he’s talked with about the council meeting invocation are “embarrassed that Longview still does this.” Of the 20 cities in Washington he’s researched, only three regularly have a Christian invocation: Longview, Kelso and Marysville.
Invocations became a regular part of the agenda in the late 1950s. City founder R.A. Long delivered the invocation at the first session of the Longview City Council in 1924, but the practice did not continue in the city’s early years.
Smith said people can pray privately all they want, but there shouldn’t be a designated time for prayer in a public building.
“Religion should not be a part of government,” Smith said. “Who cares what (religion) anyone is? When they’re there to conduct business of government and you have an invocation, then all of a sudden people start to look around to see who’s standing and who’s sitting.”
Councilwoman Mary Jane Melink, who is a Christian, said she sides with Smith’s view.
“I don’t think it’s the right time or the right place for prayer, in part because there’s lots of different faiths out there,” she said Friday. “We’re not a church. We’re there to conduct the city’s business.”
Mayor Jensen, however, likes the invocation.
“I just think it sets a tone for the meeting that we’ll be more friendly,” he said. “I guess I really can’t explain it, but it just seems right to me.”