Mayor asks councilor to stop giving invocations
MITCHELL, S.D. - When local pastors fail to show up for the invocation at Mitchell City Council meetings, everyone turns to Geri Beck. Ever since saying "I'll do it" when no pastor stepped forward for the invocation at a council meeting last year...
MITCHELL, S.D. - When local pastors fail to show up for the invocation at Mitchell City Council meetings, everyone turns to Geri Beck.
Ever since saying "I'll do it" when no pastor stepped forward for the invocation at a council meeting last year, Beck has delivered several impromptu prayers.
But this past Monday, when no pastor stepped to the podium and all eyes shifted to Beck, she turned out her palms in a defensive gesture.
"I've been advised not to do that," she said.
Afterward, she told The Daily Republic that Mayor Lou Sebert had asked her to stop delivering invocations.
Sebert said Wednesday that he was motivated by an article he read recently. Though he no longer has the article and cannot remember what publication it appeared in, he said it discouraged invocations by government officials.
"I really appreciate her offer," Sebert said of Beck, "but I just don't think it's the best thing for a government body to offer the prayer."
Sebert's predicament is a common one. The U.S. Supreme Court in 1983 affirmed the right of legislative bodies to allow invocations, but aspects of the practice continue to be debated and litigated.
Every Mitchell City Council agenda includes an invocation by a representative of the local ministerial association, which rotates the responsibility among its members. Prior to Beck's installation as a council member last year, the common practice was to skip the invocation if the scheduled minister failed to attend the meeting.
Beck said she understands the mayor's concern about the separation of church and state and will comply with his request, but she does not think the request was necessary.
"I don't see where it's a controversy, and I can't believe anybody in this community would get upset about it," Beck said. "But it's not worth creating a stink over. You can certainly pray for the City Council in the privacy of your own home. You don't have to do it publicly."
The right of a legislative body to allow invocations was affirmed by the U.S. Supreme Court's decision in Marsh v. Chambers. A Nebraska legislator claimed, unsuccessfully, that the chaplain's prayer at the beginning of each legislative session violated the First Amendment's prohibition of a government establishment of religion.
Then-Chief Justice Warren Burger delivered the court's majority opinion.
"To invoke Divine guidance on a public body entrusted with making the laws is not, in these circumstances, an 'establishment' of religion or a step toward establishment; it is simply a tolerable acknowledgment of beliefs widely held among the people of this country," Burger wrote.
There have been other court decisions pertaining to invocations, but Patrick Garry, a professor at the University of South Dakota School of Law, said Wednesday that he's not aware of any cases involving an elected official delivering the invocation.
Garry, who was written and lectured extensively on the courts' treatment of religion, said the Supreme Court has not taken a consistent approach to the issue. That makes judging the constitutionality of Beck's invocations difficult.
On the one hand, Garry said, it could be argued that the mayor's directive to Beck infringed on her right to free speech. On the other hand, he added, it could be argued that her prayers "put the weight of the government behind a particular type of religious exercise or creed."
"There are so many arguments on either side of this," Garry said, "that you can argue this practically to death."