The Pendleton City Council has come to the consensus that prayers are private but pledges can be public.
At a workshop Tuesday, the council discussed adding an opening invocation and the pledge of allegiance to its regular meeting agenda.
The issue was brought up at the behest of councilor Paul Chalmers, who said prayers were already a part of the council rule book. He added that he had seen other governing bodies open their meetings with prayers.
For him, invocations were about recognizing personal weaknesses and asking a higher power for wisdom.
“I understand the concept of invocation because I believe as human beings we need divine intervention more times than we would like to admit,” said Chalmers, a member of the Pendleton First Assembly of God Church.
The rules of public prayer
Nancy Kerns, Pendleton’s city attorney, said the council had discontinued invocations in the early to mid-1980s over worries that it violated the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause, which bars the government from favoring one religion over another.
But a 2014 ruling from the U.S. Supreme Court made legislative prayers legally permissible.
In Town of Greece v. Galloway, the court considered the case of a separation of church and state group suing a New York town over its practice of having local chaplains lead the council in prayer. By a 5-4 vote, the court determined that prayers were allowable at public meetings as long as they met a certain set of conditions.
“In a nutshell, they rationalized that it’s a part of our history and our First Amendment doesn’t require non-religion,” Kerns said.
If the Pendleton City Council were to adopt invocations at its meetings, Kerns had a lengthy set of recommendations to ensure the council complied with the supreme court’s ruling.
According to a memo written by Kerns, a member of the city council or municipal employee could not lead the invocation because it would give the appearance of endorsing a religious viewpoint.
Instead, the city would need to invite a rotating group of religious leaders to perform each opening prayer. Kerns said the council would need to appoint someone to maintain a list of people to deliver the invocation.
Even obscure religions, like Rastafarianism, would be eligible for the list, Kerns said.
The prayers themselves needed to be “brief, solemn and respectful in tone,” and could not reference a specific deity, like Jesus Christ.
The Umatilla County Board of Commissioners don’t do an invocation, and neither do the four cities on the west side of the county — Hermiston, Umatilla, Stanfield and Echo.
But both Milton-Freewater and Pilot Rock open their legislative meetings with prayer.
Both cities have been doing invocations at public meetings longer than their top administrators have worked there, although their practices stray from Kerns’ suggested guidelines.
Milton-Freewater City Manager Linda Hall said members of the city council lead the invocation on a rotating basis.
Along with asking about their food allergies and where to send their agenda packets, Hall said the city checks if incoming council members would be comfortable leading an opening prayer. If they are, they’re added to the rotation.
Teri Porter, Pilot Rock’s city recorder, said a local pastor leads the invocation for every meeting. If he’s not available, a representative for the pastor or a member of the council leads the prayer.
Neither Hall or Porter said they have received complaints from any community members about the invocations.
“Nobody has questioned it all,” Porter said. “It’s just common and expected.”
Down a prayer, up a pledge
Despite Chalmers’ request, the councilors didn’t seem eager to incorporate prayers into their meetings.
Councilor Scott Fairley said he grew up in a secular household and had always been uncomfortable with prayers at public meetings.
On a less personal level, Fairley said he’s spoken with several citizens since the issue was brought up and the reaction was universally against invocations. He said the people he spoke to felt prayers were best left for people to do on their own time rather than in public meetings.
Councilor Dale Primmer repeated some of the concerns Fairley heard and added his own thoughts.
“We came into this council fairly focused on goals,” he said. “I’m just afraid this will turn into a distraction and this will be something we’ll be responding to.”
For his part, Chalmers said he could have his own reflections on God and didn’t want to impose his own beliefs on anyone else.
“There’s no magic or whatever to an invocation,” he said. “That can happen 24/7 if you so choose.”
Chalmers said invocations didn’t need to be forced into the process, but he noted that it was “a sad state of affairs” that it wasn’t the norm.
While invocations weren’t gaining much traction with the council, another early meeting ritual drew more council support — the pledge of allegiance.
Councilor Becky Marks viewed it as a unifying experience.
“If we are able to stand together and say the pledge, then we know, at least for that one moment, we’re all together,” she said. “I think it makes our arguments stronger. I think it makes our compromises stronger.”
Some members of the council viewed it as a reaffirmation of the oath the council takes when they’re sworn in.
Mayor John Turner said he could add the pledge of allegiance to the agenda as soon as the Jan. 2 meeting.
Contact Antonio Sierra at firstname.lastname@example.org or 541-966-0836.