COEUR d’ALENE — It’s a tradition that traces back at least three mayoral administrations.
Taking place at the beginning of every City Council meeting, it lasts but a minute.
The majority of constituents the council serves seem to support it. It’s rarely, if ever, been publicly opposed.
But, depending on the outcome of a United States Supreme Court decision, it might not be legal.
It’s the invocation — the opening prayer where council members, staff members and citizens in attendance bow their heads and pray to God before the city takes up business during its bi-monthly meeting.
It’s where religion mixes with government. It could be here to stay, or it could be on its way out.
It’s a “complicated topic with many variables,” said City Attorney Mike Gridley. “Hopefully, the case before the (Supreme Court) will give some guidance.”
The case before the high court is Town of Greece, New York v. Susan Galloway. Last year, a federal appeals court ruled that the town of Greece, had crossed the line and violated the 1st Amendment’s ban on an “establishment of religion” because it invited a local minister to deliver an opening prayer at the council’s monthly meeting, according to reports.
The suit, filed 3,000 miles away, could affect how Coeur d’Alene opens its meetings. The Lake City is one of the only governmental bodies in Kootenai County that opens its council meetings with a prayer. Hayden, Post Falls, and Kootenai County’s Board of Commissioners don’t. Neither does the city of Rathdrum. Coeur d’Alene incorporated the tradition decades ago and it’s never been challenged — at least not publicly — officials said.
That doesn’t mean it’s 100 percent legal, however, and the outcome of the Supreme Court case has the potential to ax Coeur d’Alene’s traditional start.
Until then, officials said, they’re not in a hurry to change something about which nobody’s complained.
“I’m pretty staunch on separation of church and state,” said Councilman Mike Kennedy. “So I kind of recognize there is a bit of conflict there, but I’m OK with that.”
In fact, other officials said, praying before meetings is fitting in politically conservative North Idaho. Some expressed surprise that other cities didn’t do it, too.
“The Washington, D.C., daily sessions, the House of Representatives, start with prayer — this is not something new to the county, this is something that founded our country,” said Paul Van Noy, pastor at Candlelight Christian Fellowship and president of the Coeur d’Alene Ministerial Association, the group of 40 pastors who rotate the duty of saying the invocation. “These are the fibers of what made America great.”
The association is comprised of about 30 different denominations. The one rule at the invocation, Van Noy said, is the pastors are not allowed to preach — just pray to God for blessing and guidance. It’s not meant to be a pulpit for waxing political or standing on a soap box. Invocation means just that: Asking for assistance from a higher power, he said.
“This is not a sermon, this is not your church,” Van Noy said of his instruction. “It’s the same thing as a wedding. People are there for a wedding, not to hear some guy preach.”
Last Tuesday, Pastor Joe Tuttle from the Heart of the City Church led off the City Council meeting with his invocation. He asked God to help the seven-member commission in its decision making.
“God,” he said in the minute-long prayer. “I pray for this City Council right now and every council member. That you will bless them and cause their ears to hear your words, God, that you will cause their hearts to turn to you and God, in this room, every council member be blessed, have your presence to abide in their lives and, God, place you as number one. God, we place you as number one in our city.”
The Coeur d’Alene Ministerial Association hasn’t turned away a pastor who has wanted to join the group, but, Van Noy added, it “embraces a judeo-Christian world view.”
“That is the way we’ve approached the invocation,” he said, adding that the tradition stretches as far back as then-Mayor Al Hassell’s term, 1993-1997.
In the New York case before the high court, the two community members suing the town argued that all of the people asked to pray there were Christian and even when they complained in 2008, the practice continued. They contend other religions were excluded, according to news reports.
That hasn’t happened in Coeur d’Alene.
Councilman Steve Adams, who described himself in his two campaigns as a religious conservative, said he supports the opening invocation, but would oppose religions other than traditional Christian ones — such as a “Muslim thing” — if they wanted to open the meeting.
“Something like that, yeah, I would have a problem with that, you bet,” he said. “This nation was established on Christian principles.”
The Obama administration and the GOP both filed amicus briefs in the Supreme Court case supporting the right of local town boards to begin their meetings with a prayer, according to news reports. The Supreme Court, the government argued, has also decided that prayer before a government meeting doesn’t violate the Constitution so long as it doesn’t “endorse” religion. It pointed to the federal sessions opening with invocation.
But Frank Bender, president of the Inland Northwest Freethought Society, said religion shouldn’t be a part of any public meeting. Besides, with approximately 3,000 recognized religions, not everyone would ever get equal representation, he said. His group is comprised of atheists and agnostics and promotes the separation of church and state. He too cited the Founding Fathers, but said religious freedom — not promoting Christianity — was the foundation of the country.
“Separate but equal just doesn’t work,” he said. “If it’s a public government, it really shouldn’t have anything to do with religion. If you guys want to go into a private room and meet and pray beforehand, fine, but the public part of the meeting where there could be any and all beliefs, it should be equally respectful.”
Gridley said the city’s legal department has never looked at the issue locally, because it has never been asked to. But it would be illegal to exclude a religion from doing it if asked. The legal question of invocation before government business gets tricky because it involves the context of what’s being said. Basically, it can depend on how specifically religious the dialogue is.
And in Coeur d’Alene, the prayers generally ask for guidance and set the right tone at the meeting, Mayor Sandi Bloem said.
She said she supports the tradition, which has taken place at every council meeting in her 12-year run at the helm.
“I think that it is something that starts the meeting with all of us taking a deep breath, hearing the message and trying to apply it,” she said.
“It has been working,” she added. “Again, we’re not trying to be illegal.”