There was much discussion and debate among Knox County Commission members today about the resolution formalizing the commission's pre-meeting prayer/devotional policy. The commissioners voted to approve the resolution 10-1 (Commissioner Amy Broyles was the sole dissenting vote). The resolution, as Commissioner Mike Hammond pointed out, simply put in writing what the commission already does.
The commissioners will continue to rotate amongst themselves in opening their meetings with an invocation or devotional of their choice, asking a local religious leader to lead an invocation or devotional, or choosing to not pray at all.
Several members of the community were on hand to share their opinions of the resolution. Lucille Griffo invoked the Constitution and told the commissioners they were elected to promote general welfare in the community.
"I don't believe that representing the interests of any particular group, religious or not, is required of you," she said. "But upholding the Constitution is."
She went on to say that praying at government functions is disrespectful to the first amendment.
"I respect the need to call upon a higher power to guide one...but I believe a private petition is far more respectful than a public one and at the same time shows complete compliance with the first amendment."
But James Thuesen said that governments that reject religion have a history of falling. He cited the Soviet Union and East Germany as examples of "atheist states" that came to a quick end. But he also questioned why those opposed to prayer before the meeting wouldn't compromise.
"The minority is asking the majority to change their procedures but aren't changing their procedures," he said. "Why can't we just be a little more tolerant of each other?"
Even members of the religious community came to state their opposition to the commission's opening prayer policy.
The Rev. John Gill of Church of the Savior UCC suggested a moment of silence in which everyone present prayed to their own god. He also pointed out what he saw as the flaw of any prayer from any faith.
"Someone will be subtly left out of that prayer's intent," he said.
Rev. Jill Sizemore of the Metropolitan Community Church agreed with Gill.
"We need to be led by a higher power," she said, but added that endorsing one prayer isolates people of different faiths.
Commissioner Broyles said she finds prayer helpful in centering her before meetings, and that she had no issue with formalizing a procedure for prayer before meetings.
"I would like to see this inclusive, and the way it's written, I don't think it's inclusive enough," she said.
She suggested keeping a list of local religious leaders who could come each month to offer an opening invocation, but Hammond, who chairs the commission and wrote the resolution, refused to adopt her suggestion.
"I believe the resolution as written is a good resolution," he said. "I do not believe it enforces one religion over another.
Broyles pointed out that the only time in her four years as a commissioner that anything other than a Protestant Christian prayer or devotional was offered was when it was her turn to do so.
"This is an opportunity for us to tell everyone in our community that they are welcome here," she said. "I cannot support this unless it's more inclusive."
Commissioner Mike Brown said people who do not agree with the opening prayer may leave the room or wait until the prayer is over.
"I do not think anyone has suffered because we pray," Brown said.
Commissioners Samuel McKenzie and Tony Norman both pledged to be more sensitive in how they prayed. However, McKenzie disagreed with Norman's statement that not saying "in Jesus' name" at the end of prayers was effectively denying his faith.
"If I don't say 'in Jesus' name' at the end of my prayers, it does not mean I love Jesus less," McKenzie said.
Commissioner Dave Wright said he found the opening invocations and devotionals to be a way for the commissioners to tell each other that they are there to "do the right thing."
"We can't do that in silence. It takes words," he said.
Broyles then reiterated her request for a more inclusively-worded resolution.
"I have had citizens come to me and say 'thank you for doing something other than a standard Christian prayer,'" she said to her fellow commissioners.
When Commissioner Larry Smith assured Broyles the commission was sensitive to her beliefs, she responded, "I'm sorry, Larry, but you're not in my seat."
Hammond called for the vote after that exchange.