Board spars over having open prayers

Written by Aaron West, The Triplicate May 29, 2014 04:02 pm

Current policy of having pre-meeting moment of reflection not enough for some

Prayer was on folks’ minds at the Del Norte County Board of Supervisors meeting on Tuesday, and that’s where it’s going to stay — for now, at least.

Even after 11 people — members of the public and clergy members alike, all invited by District 1 Supervisor Roger Gitlin — addressed the board in regard to opening each meeting with a public, nondenominational prayer, Board Chairman David Finigan said that the already agendized moment of reflection that takes place at the beginning of each Board of Supervisors meeting is sufficient.

“When you say nondenominational prayer — it isn’t that easy,” Finigan said after public comments were heard. “You have to deal with the agnostics, the atheists, the Seventh-day Adventists, the Latter-day Saints. It’s not just the Episcopalians, Lutherans, Catholics or the Jewish. It’s also our Native American brethren, who do open their meetings with prayer. It is the Satan worshipers. It’s the Rastafarians, who would advocate to smoke pot before the meeting. I could go on and on.”

Still, Gitlin disagreed, pointing out that meetings in Eureka, as well as in Modoc and Siskiyou counties, are opened with a nondenominational prayer — all in accordance with a recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling, Town of Greece v. Galloway, which OK’d a New York town’s practice of opening its government meetings with a prayer.

“It’s good enough for the rest of country,” Gitlin said. “I say let’s have an open prayer here and make it nondenominational so that it’s inclusive.”

Meeting attendees who addressed the Board, several of whom were local pastors, also brought up the Supreme Court ruling, as well as shared personal stories meant to persuade the Board to at least place the issue on the June 10 meeting agenda.

“When I hear that we don’t have prayer in public places — that worries me,” said Paul Yang, who escaped to Del Norte from Laos with his family after living for years in concentration camps there. “Why did we escape Laos to come to America?”

But Finigan stuck to his initial concerns about offending or excluding community members and went on to deny Gitlin’s request that the issue be placed on the next meeting’s agenda. Gitlin said this was a violation of his right as a supervisor to place items on a meeting agenda as outlined in the Del Norte County Administrative Polices and Procedures manual, which Finigan disagreed with.

“[Gitlin’s] interpretation is that all he has to do is consult with the chair and it goes on,” Finigan told the Triplicate. “But the chair will decide, sometimes in consultation with the CAO and the county counsel, whether or not it’s appropriate or timely.”

Statue 1.10.010 in the county’s manual reads: “Any member of the board may place an item on the agenda for action after first consulting with the chairperson of the board.” 

Finigan also said that the Supreme Court ruling cited by meeting attendees protected an established tradition in the town in that case — a tradition that Del Norte doesn’t necessarily have.

“This Board, this community, has always been silent as our custom and culture, rather than having vocal prayer,” he said. “What this is about is trying to avoid the slippery slope that you are not recognizing when we open it up to prayer before a meeting.”

He also said that it’s his job as chair to direct the meeting to address subjects relevant to the Board.

“I believe in prayer just as much as anybody,” Finigan said in a Triplicate interview. “But being the face of the Board, I have to decide what’s appropriate.”

Although the other supervisors were silent on the issue during the meeting, Supervisor Martha McClure later agreed with Finigan’s take on the situation.

“I support a silent moment of reflection,” she said. “We’re a diverse community. I think that everyone has their own higher power. We don’t want to offend people.”

Supervisor Gerry Hemmingsen had no comment on the issue. Supervisor Mike Sullivan wasn’t immediately available for comment.

“This board will at 8:30 have a moment of reflection and prayer as they see fit,” Finigan said at the end of the discussion. “I would invite any of you and all of you to join.”

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