Miami-Dade commissioners gave preliminary approval Tuesday to starting off their meetings with a nondenominational prayer, prompting objections from a civil-rights group that said the county should expect a fight.
In a quick vote with no discussion, commissioners voted 10-1 to support legislation proposed by Commissioner Jose “Pepe” Diaz to replace pre-meeting moments of silence with an invocation from a government-selected religious representative.
Only Commissioner Sally Heyman voted against the ordinance, which now heads to a committee before returning to the full board for a final vote. That could happen as early as November.
Diaz said he felt enshrining the change into law is necessary because it will spell out rules and regulations that ensure equal access to diverse religions.
Religion “is what this country was made from,” he said.
The proposal drew criticism from groups that advocate separation of church and state. Opponents promised phone calls and letters in the coming weeks, and possible legal action.
Miami-based Howard Simon, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida, said, “I don’t know why they want to go down this road, I think it’s a bad mistake. To do this is only going to create areas of competition and contention along religious lines.”
The ordinance mandates that the person giving the invocation would be chosen by commissioners from a database of “religious congregations with an established presence within Miami-Dade County’’ compiled by the county clerk’s office. It calls for no one person to give the invocation more than three times a year, and opens it to leaders of all faiths.
“A legislative invocation shall not be exploited to convert others to any particular faith, to advance any particular faith or to disparage any other faith or belief,” the ordinance reads.
But Simon said since the county will not be allowed to know in advance what a speaker plans to say, he or she could cross the line into impermissible territory.
County Attorney Bruce Libhaber said county rules already allow for invocations, though they don’t set limitations.
“This was codified to have a verbal prayer and spell out the procedure of how it would be done,” he said.
Commissioners Rebeca Sosa and Esteban “Steve” Bovo co-sponsored the prayer ordinance.
Also Tuesday, commissioners spent almost two hours discussing whether to back a proposal by Commissioner Javier Souto that would have required the consent of a district commissioner before a neighborhood could be annexed into a neighboring municipality. The item was deferred, after most commissioners and a host of community leaders disagreed with it.
The item gave Souto a chance to continue his war of words with Sweetwater Mayor Manny Moroño. Souto has accused him of sneakily trying to annex an area attached to Florida International University near Southwest 107th Avenue and Eighth Street that is in Souto’s district.
“I would have had some dialogue with the commissioner had he returned my phone calls,” Moroño told the commissioners. Retorted Souto: “You tried to reach me once the process was going on. People in very high positions lied to me.”