By Gene Marrano
Facing the possibility of defending a costly lawsuit if it does not end the practice of starting public meetings with a
sectarian prayer, the Roanoke County Board of Supervisors decided on Tuesday to look at other options. That decision came at the end of the evening meeting, after a number of speakers had spoken on the prayer issue. Most urged the supervisors to fight complaints from the Wisconsin-based “Freedom From Religion” group and the “Secular Humanists of Roanoke”, who want to end the opening prayers that are led by invited pastors.
Freedom from Religion, with support from the ACLU, has sued Pittsylvania County over similar practices. A non-sectarian prayer – one that does not invoke the name of Jesus for example – may be one option the Board of Supervisors considers, with legal advice from the Roanoke County staff. No vote was taken at the meeting on whether to end or amend the opening prayer but Chairman Richard Flora said that could come within the next few months.
“I feel in my heart we’re going to lose [if the matter goes to court],” said Vinton supervisor Mike Altizer, “we’re fighting the 4th Circuit Court and the U.S. Supreme Court.” Both have held in the past that prayer has no place at venues like local government meetings and public schools.
Catawba district supervisor Butch Church seemed a bit more defiant: “We are succumbing to a very few…it just starts a roller coaster that gains speed.” Still Church didn’t relish the possibility of defending the practice in court. “It’s your [taxpayer] money that we could lose,” he noted.
Scott Mange, representing the Secular Humanists of Roanoke, told the Board during the afternoon public comment segment that he represented “60 non-believers,” in Roanoke County, contending it wasn’t just an outside group like Freedom from Religion that wants the practice to stop. “We hope to find a way to do this that does not involved the courts,” said Mange.
“Our beliefs were founded in the God of the Bible,” countered Linda Oliver, one of several speakers to contend that the country and the Constitution were based on that principle. “I’m firmly convinced that our founding fathers intended for God to have some type of constitutional relevance in our government,” said Mike Bailey. Charles Beck also urged supervisors to stand firm: “Many more are with you than against you [on prayer].”
Linda LaPrade said it was,“past time to listen to those that elected you, [not] listen and follow what outside groups want you to do.” That was the case said LaPrade on issues like the recent large wind turbine ordinance.
Cave Spring supervisor Charlotte Moore was open to the idea of changing the traditional opening to public meetings. “Non-sectarian prayer is a start,” said Moore; “it would be unfair to ask our citizens to pay thousands of dollars [for court costs].”
Windsor Hills supervisor Ed Elswick said the idea of Roanoke County being sued by Freedom from Religion over the practice “may be purely [about] money… simply to pay their salaries.” He wasn’t buying an alternative that is now used in localities like Botetourt County: “a moment of silence is a coward’s way out.”
Flora, who said he often gives the invocation at family gatherings, appeared to choke up at times as he summed up the issue at the end of the night. There will be sectarian prayer “until the Board makes a decision – this will be continued,” he said.