They’d been praying before City Council meetings from 1979 to 2011 in Litchfield, a central Minnesota town of nearly 7,000 people and more than a dozen Christian churches.
Then Mayor Keith Johnson pulled the plug on the practice.
“For me, state and church both have their place, but it becomes a touchy situation in a public place,” Johnson said. “I just felt the Christian religion wasn’t the only religion — even if about 98 percent of this little hamlet are Christian, with a few agnostics and atheists.”
Johnson is now rethinking his position after the U.S. Supreme Court’s 5-4 decision this week, ruling that a New York town board wasn’t violating the Constitution when it invoked Jesus Christ in prayers before its meetings. Justices said local legislative bodies “need not become a ‘religion-free zone’ ” — even if the prayers specify a single faith tradition.
“It’s a whole different story and we’ve got a little more ammunition with the Supreme Court ruling on it,” Johnson said. “I would not have a problem with prayer coming back in our place, and I’ll bring it up.”
Across Minnesota, from Albert Lea to Fergus Falls, Columbia Heights to North St. Paul, city councils have been praying to open meetings for years — using a rotation of typically Christian pastors who don’t shy away from using Jesus’ name. That practice will only grow following the justices’ latest opinion.
“I was glad to hear that decision — it’s definitely on my radar right now,” said Jim Butterfield, chairman of the Kandiyohi County Board in Willmar, 30 miles west of Litchfield and 90 miles west of the Twin Cities.
When Butterfield was sworn in as chairman, his pastor gave a benediction, as has been the custom in Kandiyohi County for years. Butterfield said he’ll consider expanding that once-a-term prayer to a more regular offering.
Several mayors took their lead from the Legislature, which has always opened floor sessions with prayers. The Supreme Court upheld that practice 30 years ago.
“It’s never been a controversy in our city because we keep it very focused on a quick shot to God that the city is here and, please, keep us safe and help us make the best decisions,” said Mike Kuehn, North St. Paul’s mayor for six years and a City Council member for 24.
The agenda for North St. Paul’s meeting Tuesday night listed the invocation right between the call to order and the roll call.
“There has always been a role for some divine guidance on the decisions we make and the public policy we work through,” said Kuehn, who bowed his head with the rest of the council members. “We never focus on religious issues, but rather it’s uplifting and done in the spirit of helping the city run its business with the grace of God helping us along.”
Evangelical Pastor Eric Uggerud of the Cornerstone Church, who offers regular prayers at Fergus Falls city meetings, thanked justices for reminding people that legislative prayer dates to the nation’s founding.
“This is not some new strategy that pastors have come up with to try to convert people,” Uggerud said. “It’s a long-standing practice.”
One that not everyone embraces.
Paynesville Mayor Jeff Thompson said he scuttled his city’s pre-meeting prayer tradition after a couple of council members privately said they felt uncomfortable. He doesn’t plan to change things despite the Supreme Court’s ruling.
“We like to present ourselves as a community that is open to all people,” Thompson said. “And we try not to do things to single out anyone or any group.”
Will all ‘make the cut’?
In Columbia Heights, a local imam was invited to provide a Muslim prayer before one of the City Council meetings. More typically, local pastor Dan Thompson opens the sessions with a prayer that ends with: “In Jesus’ name, we pray.”
Thompson welcomes the local imam but resists attempts to make prayers generic.
“If you don’t want us to pray, that’s OK,” Thompson said. “But if I get to pray, let me pray like I want to pray.”
Chuck Samuelson, director of the Minnesota branch of the American Civil Liberties Union, worries about whether elected leaders will allow any clergy members to give invocations or “whether they’ll decide which religion is worthy.”
“Do you think atheists or Rastafarians will make the cut?” Samuelson asked.
Steve Hunegs, who leads the Jewish Community Relations Council, thinks the Supreme Court has sparked “a healthy civic discussion.”
“We have to engage in these issues to make sure different peoples’ religious expression is respected,” Hunegs said.
In Litchfield, former Mayor Vida Hendrickson, who started the City Council prayers after she was elected in 1978, says she’s now praying that her successor will change his mind and bring them back. “We all need guidance,” she said.
Johnson, the current mayor, said he visited people in their homes to explain his stance when his decision to nix the prayers prompted letters to the local newspaper.
“I pray myself to my Christian god before every meeting,” said Johnson, 71, an interior painter and church choir director for nearly 40 years. “But I just didn’t feel city meetings were the proper place for prayers to be held.”
He’ll bring the issue up at the next meeting May 19.