Miami-Dade Commission reinstitutes prayer before meetings; ACLU threatens to sue

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.

The controversial topic opened the door to philosophical discussion on the dais. Some commissioners spoke of their personal religious beliefs, or characterized the current moment of silence policy as a type of censorship. When Heyman offered up a Thomas Jefferson line about separation of church and state, Suarez responded with a John Adams anecdote.

Tuesday’s commission debate was attended by Verdugo and about a dozen Christian Family Coalition members, most of whom sat quietly, waving their hands in unison when a commissioner said something they agreed with. No one spoke against the measure, because public participation is not automatically allowed during the second and final reading of an ordinance.

At a recent committee meeting on the measure, supporters turned out in heavy numbers and voiced their opinions.

Though they were badly outnumbered, Heyman and Moss expressed intense arguments against government-sponsored prayer, which critics say violates church/state separation and often winds up crossing the line into impermissible religious territory.

Heyman called it “discriminatory and unfair to members of the community to be subjected to a religious point of view.” She added: “This legislation is unnecessary. I believe it is dangerous and it exposes us to litigation.”

Moss took a personal approach, recalling verbal attacks against him during a bitter campaign for Miami-Dade’s controversial 1998 human rights bill, which gave gays equal rights. The Christian Coalition fought that ordinance fiercely, openly discriminating against blacks and immigrants in the process, Moss said. He said the Christian Family Coalition is a stepchild of the Christian Coalition.

“That’s a lie!” an audience member shouted in response.

Moss pressed on. “It’s like the nose of the camel under the tent. I have a real concern with the group that was pushing this issue,” he said.

Edmonson, the acting chairperson Tuesday before Sosa takes over in January, said she understood Moss’ concerns, but rather than focusing on the group she was voting with her “conscience.’’

Edmonson added she routinely prays before commission gatherings. “In fact, I asked the Lord this morning, ‘Help me get through this meeting,’ ” she quipped.

In other business Tuesday, commissioners:

•  Shot down an attempt by Jordan to remove a list of county employees and their salaries from the county’s website, even after she amended the item to delete names and include just salary and job title. Commissioners Heyman, Diaz and Edmonson voted along with Jordan on the losing side of a 6-4 vote.

As part of a transparency initiative, Gimenez started listing the salaries online earlier this year.

•  Gave the nod with a 9-2 vote to construction of a massive warehouse and industrial park in the heart of the old Westview neighborhood, even as residents and their lawyer complained they were not consulted on new plans submitted by the developer, Rosal Westview. Moss and Suarez voted against the item; Bell and Souto were absent.

The plan is to build the warehouse distribution center of more than one million square feet on the site of the former Westview golf course on Northwest 119th Street. The developer was requesting a zoning change from residential to industrial use.