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Staunton Council Debates Opening Meetings with Prayer - NBC29 WVIR Charlottesville, VA News, Sports and Weather

Staunton Council Debates Opening Meetings with Prayer

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Thursday night, Staunton City Council will open its business meeting with a prayer. But it might be for the last time.

Council members will decide whether they should invoke a higher power or begin with a moment of silence. 

Staunton Councilwoman Andrea Oakes has informally taken on the role as leader of council's opening prayers. But one month ago, Mayor Lacy King began the meeting with a moment of silence. 

Oakes believes that is a "watering down" of a long-standing tradition and hopes it doesn't happen again. 

"We want to preserve the invocation for future generations. And I do not want this City Council to have the legacy of doing away with prayer," Oakes said.

The Supreme Court has allowed legislative bodies to publicly offer a nonsectarian invocation, a prayer that calls on a name no more specific than "God." 

The Rutherford Institute has also weighed in on this issue. The Charlottesville-based civil liberties group says it sees no reason for Staunton City Council to change its long-standing tradition. It points to recent cases before the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals of similar prayers in Chesterfield County and Fredericksburg. 

Staunton City Attorney Erik Curren has come up with three options on how to formalize the opening of council meetings (See options below).

Members appear split on whether prayer is a must. 

"For me personally, I enjoy acknowledging a higher power. Sometimes I enjoy doing that through an invocation and sometimes through a moment of silence. I think both can be very effective," Curren said. 

"The only problem with that is - you're watering it down. You are no longer having the invocation, which again is the long-standing tradition which I want to see preserved," Oakes said. 

The Staunton Council meeting begins at 7:30 p.m. A group of prayer supporters is expected to be there in a show of solidarity.


From Staunton City Council's 3/28/2013 Work Session Agenda:

Possible Approaches: Council may consider taking the following or other possible approaches to this item, in addition to discussing it during the work session:

1. Continue the existing informal policy by practice and have an "Invocation/Moment of Silence" listed and observed at the beginning of the regular session, with any invocation to comply with applicable legal requirements.

2. Continue the existing informal policy by practice of an invocation or moment of silence but formally memorialize it in an amendment to Council Procedure Memorandum 3 (see attached draft with alternative language), with an "Invocation/Moment of Silence" to be listed and observed at the beginning of every regular (or work session) on a rotating basis among Council members, who may defer to the next Council member in the rotation, with any invocation to comply with applicable legal requirements. Absent any timely notification, the presiding officer will observe a moment of silence.

3. Continue the existing informal policy by practice of an invocation or moment of silence but formally memorialize it in an amendment to Council Procedure Memorandum 3 (see attached draft with alternative language), with an "Invocation/Moment of Silence" to be listed and observed at the beginning of every regular (or work session) on a first-come sign-up basis by notification to the Clerk of Council by 12:00 noon on the day of meeting, with any invocation to comply with applicable legal requirements. Absent any timely notification sign-up, the presiding officer will observe a moment of silence.

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