Last week, the Miami-Dade Board of County Commissioners voted to end the eight-year practice of a moment of silence, by which everyone had the opportunity to pray or reflect, and replace it with a system of spoken prayers.
No one should be surprised when politicians are seduced by religious zealots to chip away at the constitutional requirement of separation of church and state; it’s how lawsuits against school boards, city councils and county commissions are born.
The ordinance is a roadmap for how someone will inevitably sue the county.
If the prayers are sectarian, the county will be sued. Courts have reaffirmed that a sectarian prayer program affiliating the government with one faith isn’t permissible. What that means is that if a pattern emerges in which some prayer-giver directs those assembled: “Let us stand and bow our heads and pray in the name of Jesus Christ our Lord and Savior,” which one presumes is precisely what prayer proponents want, the commission is likely to be sued.
In the words of a U.S. Court of Appeals ruling this past May, if the prayer offered at meetings of public bodies “conveys to a reasonable objective observer” the affiliation of the commission or its endorsement of a particular religion that will “violate the clear command of the Establishment Clause.” In other words, the commission will be sued.
If commissioners attempt to censor the prayers or instruct a prayer-giver that the prayer to be offered must be blandly “nonsectarian,” the commission could be sued for censorship of religious speech or establishing a sort of “civic religion.”
Last month, Florida voters rejected Amendment 8 and reaffirmed Florida’s long-standing constitutional provision of “No Aid” to religion. This means that the expenditure of any monies by our county commission for a religious purpose may be yet another state constitutional basis to sue the county.
This is a no-win situation for the county. But it isn’t merely that the moment of silence protects the commission from legal liability, it’s also respectful of the diversity of our community.
Aside from the constitutional principles, what was disheartening was to hear some commissioners say that they don’t understand why anyone would be offended by attending a meeting of their county commission only to be asked to stand, bow their heads, and pray to Jesus Christ our lord and savior, or to some other deity or some sacred scripture of a religious tradition that isn’t their own.
That some commissioners find it hard to understand why anyone would be offended is an indication that, though we pride ourselves on being a diverse community, we really live in silos and in isolation.
Howard Simon, executive director, The American Civil Liberties Union of Florida, Miami