The Tulsa City Council's habit of praying before meetings could come under review if members of the local Freethinkers community decide to follow through on the possibility of pursuing legal action.
Kenny Nipp, leader of the Tulsa Atheist Group, said his organization has been monitoring every council meeting since the middle of October, and it is his belief the weekly opening prayer strayed across the line of the First Amendment only once--at its Dec. 10 meeting. But Nipp is more concerned that, during the long term, the council's policy is restricting that role of prayer leader to Christians.
"The City Council has claimed that it is willing to allow non-Christian faith leaders to open the meetings, but they make the criteria to do so so difficult to maneuver through that all non-Christian faith leaders rarely even try," Nipp said, adding that he had spoken with a Wiccan leader who was interested in leading a council prayer but became frustrated with the process and gave up.
Nipp said he is seeking legal counsel to advise him on how other municipalities have handled the issue, and he is considering taking legal action, depending on the outcome of those conversations.
District 2 Councilor Rick Westcott, who chairs the council meetings, said he was not aware of anyone whose request to lead a prayer before the council had been denied or discouraged, though he acknowledged any such request probably would not have come to him.
But he said when the current policy was adopted in early 2008, the council made sure not to exclude any organized religion from participating.
"If someone feels that's the case, that's first I've heard of that," he said.
The council's official policy on the issue allows prayer to open the body's weekly meetings.
The policy states the prayer--which is led by a leader from a recognized congregation within the city--should be cognizant of the many faiths in the community, and it forbids anyone from taking the opportunity to proselytize, or advance or disparage any faith or belief, or the particular tenants or beliefs of individual faiths.
The prayer leader is allowed to use the name of his or her god within the prayer so long as that use does violate any of the aforementioned conditions.
The policy goes on to state the council extends an open invitation to all recognized congregations within the city to sponsor their "pastor, minister, rabbi, imam or other faith leader" to provide the invocational prayer for the City Council, adding that scheduling is to be coordinated through the council administrator.
Asked whether the policy's language specifying that the invitation extends to "recognized congregations" within the city might provide room for interpretation, Westcott said, "This is a difficult issue. On the one hand, and I'm going to make something goofy up here, if someone believes in, say, the Holy Trinity of Persian Cats, in their mind, they may be entirely sincere. But that would not be a recognized religious congregation. So we do have to limit it somewhat."
Westcott said the council tries to be inclusive and balanced, and he believes its policy reflects the values system of the community at large.
"I really believe we are within the law," he said.
Nipp is less sure.
He points out that while non-sectarian prayer in such settings is allowed, "it's not a very good idea to do so. It opens a Pandora's Box of problems and can and often does cost municipalities huge legal fees for lawsuits due to misuse."
Nipp said he believes the council is making an effort to avoid sectarian prayer at its meetings, but he still takes exception to the restriction in the policy regarding who may lead the weekly prayer.
"Tulsa's City Council is clearly pandering to the religious right and are consciously trying to favor Christian ideology for votes at the expense of the most important document in the land," he said, referring to the U.S. Constitution.
Another member of the local Freethinkers community--William Dusenberry, who is the coordinator of the Tulsa Coalition of Reason--is upset by the council's habit of praying before meetings and said he intends to file a complaint with the state chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union.
He views such action not only as contrary to the Constitution but as an effort by elected officials to pander to certain voters by demonstrating that they are "more Christian" than their challengers.
He worries that political campaigns will be run on that basis rather than on which candidate is best suited to help run the city.
"When religious ideology trumps political ability, we have to worry about the possibility of a theocracy," he said.
Dusenberry said that as a resident of Broken Arrow, he lacks the legal standing to formally challenge Tulsa's policy in court, but he said he is pursuing the idea of finding a Tulsa resident to serve as the plaintiff. He acknowledged he is trying to "stir the pot" and hopes to see some local organization that helps make up the local Freethinkers community take the lead on the issue by pursing a legal challenge to the council's action.
"I want to make sure one of these groups does what needs to be done," he said. "A lot of times, these groups have good intentions, but unless you put your foot up their rear end, they won't do anything."
But Karl Sniderman--president of the state chapter of Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, where Dusenberry is the vice president--takes issue with his cohort's approach. He said he has been tracking the City Council meetings online for several months through the city's TGOV Web site.
"Most of the time, they have been non-sectarian prayers," said Sniderman, who is also on the board of the Tulsa Interfaith Alliance. "There was only one time in which that was not the case. So at this moment, near as I can tell, they are in compliance."
Sniderman acknowledged the lineup of individuals who have been leading the weekly prayers seems to consist entirely of Christians, but he said he had heard the name Jesus mentioned only once during a prayer.
"I don't see that the group that Mr. Dusenberry and I belong to has any case here against the city, and I told him that," he said.
This is not the first time the issue has arisen. Sniderman, who is Jewish, said he and another member of the Interfaith Alliance, a Muslim, attended a council meeting in 2007 and were surprised to hear the session open with a sectarian prayer that referenced a specific deity. They examined court cases across the country and became convinced it was unconstitutional for government meetings to open with such a prayer.
Sniderman approached city officials and the local media to plead his case, and he said the council made the decision to eliminate sectarian prayer from its meetings. But he said after a series of complaints from some members of the Christian community, that policy lasted only a short time before the current one was adopted.
"They decided to re-allow sectarian prayer, but they were going to be somewhat more inclusive of who could say the prayer instead of only Christians," he said.
Dusenberry points to a recent federal court decision in North Carolina that struck down a county government's policy of opening board meetings with sectarian prayers to support his contention that the City Council in Tulsa is operating unconstitutionally.
But Westcott said when the council adopted its policy three years ago, it examined dozens of such cases around the country and took them into consideration. He's confident Tulsa's policy would hold up under closer examination.
"Our policy is entirely legal, and we're not going to change," he said.
He also said he found it interesting that those opposed to the City Council's policy would make their complaints public without going to city officials first.
"How sincere are they about wanting to work through the process and solve this problem--or do they just want to go through the media?" Westcott asked.
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