For eight years, anyone who prayed at the start of a Miami-Dade Commission meeting did so privately, during a moment of silence invoked as the session began.
But when commissioners next meet in two weeks, that introspection will turn into spoken words and be shared with all inside the County Hall chamber.
On Tuesday, an intensive 18-month lobbying effort by the Christian Family Coalition paid off when commissioners voted 8-3 after lengthy debate to reinstitute prayer before public meetings for the first time since 2004.
Those prayers, according to the new ordinance, must be non-denominational and be offered before the meeting officially begins, with commissioners choosing the speaker ahead of time on a rotating basis. If a commissioner wishes, he or she may offer the prayer.
Anthony Verdugo, executive director of the Christian Family Coalition, praised the County Commission for “moving into the 21st century,” and said the vote ended “8½ years of discrimination.”
But the embrace of government-sponsored prayer did not pass muster with the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida, which said after the vote that a lawsuit is “inevitable.” The group will monitor a few meetings before moving forward.
“If prayers are sectarian in nature, the county will be sued …’’ said Howard Simon, executive director of the ACLU of Florida. “Moving away from a moment of silence is a no-win situation for the county.”
Voting for the ordinance were Commissioners Jose “Pepe” Diaz, Jean Monestime, Rebeca Sosa, Xavier Suarez, Juan Zapata, Bruno Barreiro, Esteban “Steve” Bovo and Audrey Edmonson. Commissioners Sally Heyman, Barbara Jordan and Dennis Moss voted against. Lynda Bell and Javier Souto were absent.
Diaz, the bill’s sponsor, agreed to a couple of changes before the vote. At Sosa’s urging, instead of having the county clerk compile a database of local religious leaders to give the prayers, commissioners will rotate choosing someone, or lead the prayer themselves. That will save the county about $26,000 in projected costs for the database.
Diaz, at the advice of staff, also agreed to change the timing of prayer so it will take place before the roll call of commissioners, more in line with how it’s done at the state and federal levels. County lawyers said whether or not the meeting has officially begun is of no legal consequence in defending the prayer ordinance.
The last time prayer was offered at the start of commission meetings was in 2004, when then-Commissioners Barbara Carey-Shuler and Katy Sorenson successfully fought to halt the practice.
Mayor Carlos Gimenez, an opponent of the measure, said the vote wasn’t necessary, pointing to a print-out of Tuesday’s agenda listing the word “Invocation’’ just after the words “Roll Call.’’
“The chair, at any time, could have done an invocation,” he said.
Diaz said his sponsorship of the ordinance had little to do with religion. He called it a matter of “freedom of speech,” and said his goal was to change the current practice of allowing only the commission chairperson to call for an invocation.
Reinstituting the right to public prayer “became something personal, in a sense,” Diaz said, adding he believes in God and enjoys praying.