There’s a time to pray and a time to legislate and that time is not the same. Which is why the Miami-Dade Commission should stick with its current policy of beginning its public meetings with a moment of silence rather than revert to opening meetings with a member of the clergy delivering a nondenominational prayer.
In 2004, at the behest of former Commissioner Katy Sorenson with support of Commissioner Sally Heyman, the commission avoided embarrassing itself any more by conducting a moment of silence rather than submit the public to the proselytizing of well-meaning but overly ardent ministers of God. There was a tendency to employ only those clergy who preached to Christians about the “Lord, our Jesus Christ,” said Ms. Sorenson, with no acknowledgment of, or respect for, the county’s Jews, Muslims, Buddhists or other believers, agnostics or atheists.
Now, at the behest of the same group that was an outspoken opponent of including gays and lesbians in the county’s human-rights ordinance, the commission seems ready to mix church with state again by adopting Commissioner Jose “Pepe” Diaz’s proposal to reinstate prayer. This will do nothing to improve the county’s economy, rev up the housing industry or help create jobs. And it will cost the cash-strapped county money.
According to County Mayor Carlos Gimenez’s office, it will cost $22,000 to compile a list of religious leaders of various faiths and $4,000 a year in technical support and maintenance — just to open public meetings. And it could also generate untold legal fees if the county gets sued for mixing church and state.
The Christian Family Coalition lobbied the commission to reinstate opening prayers, its members wearing stickers that said “Floridians for Speech Equality” as they called upon county politicians to give equal time to prayer in public meetings. But there is no legal standing for requiring that prayer or religion be part of a public forum. Nor should there be.
In 1983, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that members of the clergy can open government meetings with prayers but they can’t advance only one faith or belief or disparage another. Religious leaders can’t invoke the names of Jesus Christ or Yahweh or Mohammed, for example.
Yet the committee voted 6-0 to approve prayer. The commission will take up the proposal on Dec. 4 and, with the exception of Ms. Heyman, it looks like the rest will vote Yes.
Mr. Diaz defends the proposal by arguing that it has been carefully worded to include a list of leaders of all recognized religions, who will be required to use nondenominational prayers and can only provide them to launch meetings three times a year. But government has no place injecting itself in what qualifies as a “recognized religion.” Would Santeros, Wiccans, Vodou priests make the list?
Prayers would not be prescreened because that would be an assault on the First Amendment. The county would be at risk of a federal lawsuit because of some over-zealous, unedited proselytizing from the podium. Such lawsuits have been filed against Lakeland and Marion County, where elected leaders tapped only Christian ministers to lead them. Other lawsuits are percolating around the country. Why take that risk?
The Supreme Court’s ruling on opening prayers at public meetings requires them to be so bland that their impact on listeners is minimal. Better a potent moment of silence to reflect on working toward sound public policy.