Conservative Christian group pushed reinstating Miami-Dade commission prayer

The Miami-Dade County Commission is poised next month to reinstate nondenominational prayers to kick off their meetings, after a group of commissioners approved the policy shift last week.

But the change was not spontaneous: The conservative Christian group pushing to restore prayer has been laying the groundwork for nearly a year and a half.

The Christian Family Coalition saw an opportunity to promote its agenda after Commissioner Katy Sorenson retired in late 2010, according Anthony Verdugo, the group’s executive director. Sorenson had been one of two board members who years earlier — in 2004, Verdugo said — changed the county’s practice to begin meetings with a moment of silence instead of a prayer.

Sorenson was replaced by the more conservative Lynda Bell, whom the Coalition had endorsed. There was other commission turnover as well.

Before then, “we didn’t feel we had enough votes on the commission to get it through,” Verdugo said. “We didn’t want it to be a divisive item for the community — we don’t need that.”

Because expressions of faith in public meetings may turn off or offend some in the community, the proposal before the commission envisions rotating religious leaders of different faiths to give invocations. The plan does not address people who do not belong to a particular religion or do not believe in God, though no one on the board or in the audience will be required to participate.

There is a price tag: It will cost the county clerk’s office about $22,000 to compile the names of religious congregations in a database, and another $4,000 a year for technical support and maintenance, according to an estimate provided to the commission by Mayor Carlos Gimenez’s office.

The story behind the proposal began last year, when the Coalition seized on its political opening.

It held a Saturday session to train some 40 people the group called “citizen lobbyists.” They were instructed on the county’s history with prayer and on laws regulating the practice.

The corps members then reached out to their commissioners. Among them was Sybel W. Lee, a 68-year-old self-described “concerned mother, grandmother and activist” who said she spoke to Commissioner Audrey Edmonson’s aide about the importance of prayer.

“Look at the harm the absence of an invocation has caused in this country,” Lee said. An invocation is about reflection, she noted, “not to impose your beliefs and ideology on other people.”

But the Coalition still needed a commissioner to take the lead on reinstating prayer. Though invocations had been eliminated without legislation — the commission just changed its meeting practices — there did not appear to be political will on the board to switch back without an ordinance.

Though the Coalition had an ally in Bell, the former mayor of Homestead, she was now representing a more moderate county commission district and was not the most likely candidate to shepherd the legislation.

Instead, the Coalition turned to Commissioner Jose “Pepe” Diaz.

“Honestly, it’s always been on my mind,” Diaz said. “Why can we not have prayer like everywhere else, like in Congress, in the state?”

Diaz said the county attorney’s office toiled to make the ordinance inclusive.

“I don’t see why the prayer is an issue,” he said, “as long as you respect everybody’s faith and belief.”

Four of his colleagues — Bell, Edmonson and Commissioners Esteban “Steve” Bovo and Rebeca Sosa — have signed on to the proposal as co-sponsors.

At an internal management and fiscal responsibility committee meeting last week, throngs of supporters packed the commission chambers to support the proposal. Many wore stickers that read “Floridians for Speech Equality,” said Verdugo, who told commissioners that excluding religious speech from meetings was “unfair.”

About 25 people spoke passionately in favor of reinstating prayer. No one spoke against.

“God rules in the affairs of men, so it is wise for us to seek his guidance and counsel,” speaker Teresita Miglio said.

The committee signed off on the measure with a 6-0 vote. The full commission had given it initial approval last month with a 10-1 vote, with Commissioner Sally Heyman the lone opponent.

The ordinance stipulates that no one be allowed to give the invocation more than three times a year. The opening prayer would be open to leaders of all faiths.

But while the ordinance says the invocation will be nondenominational, there’s no way for the county to know in advance what a speaker plans to say, said Howard Simon, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida.

That’s what happened before commissioners did away with the invocation, former Commissioner Sorenson said. The prayers were supposed to be nondenominational, but that often wasn’t the case.

“It was divisive and not productive and insensitive to people who didn’t share the Christian faith,” she said. “No matter what the rules were, there were so many ministers who were invited who would invoke ‘Lord Jesus Christ.’ ”

Simon said the ACLU had been focused on election day and has yet to formally question the proposed ordinance.

“I guess we’ll have to do something,” Simon said with a sigh, before the measure goes to the board for a final vote on Dec. 4.