Although prayer is meant to calm the spirit and unite people, it has caused divisiveness and contention between members of the Spokane City Council and the Spokane Human Rights Commission.
A 1995 resolution by the Spokane City Council to open their council meetings with an invocation has raised the ire of the commission on the grounds that it violates both the Washington State Constitution and the U.S. Constitution.
According to the commission, Article 1, Sect. 11, Amendment 34 of the state constitution, which says that “No public money or property shall be shall be appropriated for, or applied to any religious worship, exercise or instruction, or the support of any religious establishment,” specifically prohibits prayers at meetings. The First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, asserting that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion,” further demonstrates the will of the writers to prohibit the specific mention of a deity.
In recent exchanges between supporters and opponents of the practice both in the local newspapers and at council meetings, those in favor call it words of inspiration while those opposed feel offended and harassed.
“These are really words of inspiration,” said Phyllis Holmes, Spokane City Council member. “For instance, tonight at our meeting, we had a former mayor read a little poetic thesis about the [American] flag. Last week it was the Baha’i faith. We have many denominations represented. From my perspective, it is positive if they present their words of inspiration in a way that exposes us to their denomination. If we pare away those words about a particular God, then we don’t really learn about another person’s denomination.”
Morton Alexander, who is a member of the Spokane Human Rights Commission, a state employee and a Jew, has been one of the more vocal members to speak out about this practice. He has been somewhat vilified in the local press and found the headline to a story covering his opposition that read “Jew Decries Reference To Jesus Christ” to be medieval in tone.
“Those that I associate with in and out of my temple have told me how irritated they are at this practice that meetings would start off this way,” said Alexander, who is a member of Temple Beth Shalom in Spokane.
“Where this is going is where a lot of things are going that are ignored by the council — to court. It’s up to the ACLU [American Civil Liberties Union] to do something about it. I am doing this as a Jew. It’s so deep in my character to be offended by this and it can inflame people. We want to do away with invocations and establish a moment of silence. Our position is to have no prayer.”
The commission’s recommendation that there be no prayer at meetings follows the lead of other cities in Washington where prayer has been prohibited, such as Bellevue, Everett, Seattle, Tacoma (where they observe a moment of silence), Vancouver and Walla Walla.
The commission further contends that because the dominant religion in Spokane is Christianity, there are disproportionate references to a particular deity, to the distress of the smaller, more minority-faith populations in the Eastern Washington city. “The effect” said the commission in an open letter to the council, “is to blur the boundary between government and religion while reinforcing the oppressiveness of the dominant culture.”
But Holmes denies there is a dominant culture in the city council invocations and doesn’t really see it as a threat at all. She also wonders who will take up this issue should it lead to further discussion in the council or go to the courts, as Alexander suggests, when their agenda is already full with other matters.
“If we are saying that we are a tolerant society but then say, “Oh, don’t say that,” then what kind of society is that?” asks Holmes, referring to the proposed deletion of divine references.
“I won’t be offended if someone chooses a different way of expressing what they believe in. Government should not dictate the religion of the land; I mean, if a preponderance of the community was Muslim, then a disproportionate number [of the invocations] would be Islamic. And frankly, as far as I’m concerned, to make this a huge issue is unconscionable with all our [drug] houses out there. We have more critical issues hanging over our heads.”
Holmes declared that, as a body, the council should form a committee to study and resolve this issue. “If some scientific group wanted to study the number of religious groups in the city and then figure out how many times they should be represented in the council invocations that would be fine, but otherwise, we have more important work to do,” she said.
The Spokane Human Rights Commission hopes to meet with the president of the Spokane City Council sometime in April to have a working session and discuss a resolution to the prayer issue.