City council prayer comes under fire

Freedom from Religion Foundation sues Parkersburg

PARKERSBURG — Two city residents and the Freedom From Religion Foundation filed a lawsuit against the city of Parkersburg charging that a prayer used at the beginning of the city council meeting violates the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.

In the suit filed Tuesday in the U.S. District Circuit for the Southern District of West Virginia, Charleston division, the plaintiffs say the prayer used, commonly called “The Lord’s Prayer,” violated the establishment clause.

“The principle at stake here may be a profound one, but it is also simple,” the suit reads. “The Establishment Clause does not permit a seat of government to wrap itself in a single faith.”

Parkersburg Mayor Tom Joyce said as of 5 p.m. Tuesday he had not seen the filing. However, he said, he understood the prayer is not technically part of the council meeting because it takes place before the meeting is called to order.

“It takes place before the meeting and no one is invited to rise and join,” Joyce said.

Joe Santer, city attorney, said he had not heard of the lawsuit and had not read it.

John Reed, president of city council, said he was aware of the suit, but it had not been served on any city official.

“I intend to have a prayer at the meeting as long as I’m president until a judge tells me to stop,” Reed said. “Until I slam the gavel down, the meeting is not in order.”

Reed said having the prayer as the first thing does not make it part of the meeting.

An item in the lawsuit states Councilman Eric Barber made the prayer coercive by staring at those who did not participate and moved closer to his microphone, pressed the speak button and shouted “Amen.”

“I did not hear that,” Reed said. “I sit in the middle of the council and I can’t see the faces of all the council clearly and I can’t see what they are doing.”

A prayer is also said before council meetings in Vienna.

Vienna Mayor Randy Rapp said the prayer at the council meeting is brief and is said before the meeting. He said he has not heard about the lawsuit filed against Parkersburg and that the city of Vienna has not been contacted regarding the prayer.

Rapp said the prayer is typically led by Councilman Bruce Rogers and non-council members, like local ministers, when Rogers is not able to attend a meeting.

Rapp said he prefers to have a prayer before the meeting.

“I’m a believer in prayer and I would be disappointed if it’s eliminated,” he said. “Prayer is something that is very valuable to our community.”

One of the plaintiffs, Daryl Cobranchi, who replied by email, said the situation has been a concern for many years.

“We have asked Council to simply follow the Constitution. Council completely ignored multiple requests,” Cobranchi said.

“I am NOT anti-Christian. I have NO PROBLEM with folks expressing their religion. That is their First Amendment right, which I strongly support.

“What I DO have a problem with is the Council effectively establishing Christianity as Parkersburg’s quasi-official religion. This Establishment Clause violation effectively diminishes before Council anyone who refuses to participate in the prayer.

“My hope is that the Council will start each meeting with a simple moment of silence followed by the Pledge of Allegiance. That way ALL citizens will feel welcome at Council meetings.

“At the very least, I expect that Council will follow the law and the Constitution,” Cobranchi said.

Eric Engle, the other plaintiff, said government officials lead the prayer and give the impression of favoring one faith over another.

Engle said in Rowan County, N.C., the county commission began its meeting with a prayer before the meeting was called to order. In a ruling from the county’s circuit court of appeals, he said, 10 of 15 judges in the circuit ruled the prayer was unconstitutional.

“City council was given an opportunity to rectify the situation,” Engle said. “In a letter from the Freedom From Religion Foundation in 2015 the previous council and (City Attorney) Joe Santer were told what they do is wrong and how to change it,” he said. “They said they would and they have not.”

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