Divine guidance comes with a one-time charge of $22,000. Plus another $4,000 a year in maintenance fees.
The estimate didn’t come from theistic sources (God doesn’t bill by the prayer), but from the Miami-Dade mayor’s office, trying to calculate the cost to taxpayers if the county commissioners vote next month to reinstate the thorny old custom of entertaining prayers before meetings.
The mayor’s office figures the commission will need to spend the money to build and maintain a database of local religious congregations so that all manner of sects get an equal opportunity to offer an opening prayer. That might avoid accusations of religious favoritism. And an expensive lawsuit.
No doubt the mayor’s office is mindful that a number of prayerful local government bodies, including the city of Lakeland, are currently fending off federal suits. The Lakeland case has reached the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. “For twenty-five years, the city identified and invited exclusively Christian clergy, who in turn typically delivered prayers that were exclusively Christian. All the while, non-Christian clergy were a phonebook away,” charged the Americans United for Separation of Church and State, in an amicus brief filed in the Lakeland suit. The brief noted that the Lakeland area hosted “well over 600 religious organizations, including but not limited to a Jewish synagogue, a Muslim mosque and a Hindu temple.”
A similar lawsuit is festering up in Marion County. Maybe a $22,000 revolving-preacher database will keep Miami-Dade from facing similar problems. Though a few of those guest ministers are likely to remind the commissioners why they decided, back in 2004, to replace the opening prayer with a reverential moment of silence.
In a 1983 decision, the U.S. Supreme Court decided it was okay for members of the clergy to open government meetings so long as the “prayer opportunity” has not been “exploited to proselytize or advance any one, or to disparage any other, faith or belief.” Except that requires a hell of a lot more restraint than some of our clergy can manage.
Of course, I’m originally from a rural, mountainous region where our preachers can hardly keep from whooping and hollering and proselytizing. A few even demonstrate their faith by waving around rattlesnakes and copperheads. Serpents might be a step up from the slithery lobbyists now working County Hall but snake handlers probably won’t make the Miami-Dade database. There are, however, several local sects given to animal sacrifice. Certainly the public would not object if some of the decapitations involved members of the Miami Marlins’ management.
But it’s going to be difficult to keep ministers from going off on their own tangents. Earlier this year, a priest invited to lead the Kansas House of Representatives in prayer delivered a stunning harangue on abortion and same-sex marriage.
In August, Missouri voters approved a “right to pray” state constitutional amendment that would “ensure public school students their right to free exercise of religious expression without interference, as long as such prayer or other expression is private and voluntary, whether individually or corporately, and in a manner that is not disruptive and as long as such prayers or expressions abide within the same parameters placed upon any other free speech under similar circumstances.” It also insured a lawsuit. Lawyers from the Anti-Defamation League and the ACLU rushed into court. (Critics note that the amendment was authored by the same rabble-rousing legislator behind bills that would have barred any discussion of “sexual orientation” in public schools. He also pushed a presidential birth-certificate requirement, aimed at keeping President Obama off the ballot, and a peculiar bill barring the placement of “electronic tracking chips” under the skin of Missouri residents.)
The Associated Press reports that other public prayer lawsuits are slogging through the courts in California, New York and Tennessee. Surely, one of these cases will wend its way to the U.S. Supreme Court. Miami-Dade County could simply wait for guidance from the high court and save itself the cost of both that database and the inevitable litigation.
Silence, in lieu of prayer, would be golden.