Thursday, March 28, 2013

Tonight: Staunton City Council ... keep prayer, or remove it?

Staunton City Council will close out Maundy Thursday by taking a vote about whether or not to keep the invocation as part of their agenda. The non-sectarian prayer has traditionally opened their meetings; that is, until February 28, when Mayor Lacy King noted they would observe a moment of silence instead of the usual prayer which caught city council members off guard.

The possibility of this becoming a permanent change has caused concern among residents in the Staunton community. Councilwoman Oakes, who has been opening the meetings with the invocation for several years, noted that numerous citizens have called or emailed her in support of prayer, and she expressed disappointment that council would even consider removing it. Many churches and church groups have begun spreading the word about the change, and letters to the editor are beginning to appear in local newspapers.

Talking with Councilwoman Oakes, reporter Calvin Trice with the Staunton News Leader wrote:
"The council needs spiritual guidance in order to guide our conscience," Oakes said. “And you certainly need to have a conscience when you’re dealing with issues like city budget.”
Reporter Bob Stuart wrote in the Waynesboro News-Virginian:
Oakes, said "the invocation is a longstanding tradition for the city of Staunton." And she said further, that the invocation "recognizes the spirituality" that guides the conscience of council members.
According to the Charlottesville-based Rutherford Institute, non-sectarian prayer is legal for city councils and boards of supervisors, and has been constitutionally upheld by the U.S. Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals. At the same time, city councils do have the right to remove prayer if they so choose.

Councilwoman Oakes, after conferring with Staunton city attorney Doug Guynn and Mayor King, has asked the mayor to bring the issue to a vote at the March 28 meeting, which happens to fall on Maundy Thursday, and has asked the citizens of Staunton to attend that meeting to show their support for the prayer.

Organizations such as the Valley Family Forum, led by Dean Welty who is working with local conservative leader Dr. Kurt Michael, are conferring with the Rutherford Institute in an effort to educate citizens on their constitutional right to have prayer before a public meeting. Staunton residents Carl Tate and Fonda Gardner have also joined in to assist.

When asked about the issue, Councilman Bruce Elder commented to the News Leader:
Councilman Bruce Elder said he always keeps matters of faith and its expressions very private.

“Personally, I think you have to be respectful of separation of church and state,” Elder said. “And you have to be respectful of diversity of faith.”
Dr. Michael, a Liberty University professor, noted, “This is not an issue of church and state. This is just another example of a few people trying to remove God from the public square. It is my understanding that a moment of silence is usually done in remembrance of people who have died. I hope the council members will remember that God is alive and well.”

If you are going....
What: Staunton City Council meeting
Date: Thursday, March 28, 2013
Time: 7:30 p.m.
Location: Staunton City Hall
116 W. Beverley St.
Staunton, VA 24401

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