Prayer Causes Controversy - 3/01/2007

Prayer Causes Controversy



   Margaret Downey and Sally Flynn, president and vice president of the Freethought Society of Greater Philadelphia, rebuked the Coatesville city council Monday night.  The Society's response came in the wake of the controversial ending to the Feb. 12 meeting. At that session, Schenk delivered a closing prayer at the behest of council president Patsy Ray. Both are ordained ministers.

    In prepared remarks, Downey said she was contacted by a Coatesville member of the Society who was offended by the meeting ending in prayer. In addition, the council routinely offers a prayer as part of opening their regular sessions. The Society has 10 members residing in the city.  Downey said, "On behalf of that un-named citizen, I wrote a letter to city council president Patsy Ray who called for the prayer, and a letter to councilman Kurt Schenk who delivered the prayer on Feb. 12. In those letters, I asked that Ray and Schenk publicly apologize for their inappropriate activity. I also asked that the city of Coatesville council members adopt a policy of neutrality and secularism when they conduct government business in a public forum."

    Downey was attending for two reasons. One to see if an apology was forthcoming. And the second to witness any action that might take place in regards to the adoption of a no-prayer policy.  Downey said, "A no-prayer policy would be prudent to guarantee that church and state remain separate, and that you, as city officials, will insure that public meetings will have a secular purpose; will not advance religion; and will not foster excessive entanglement with religion." She added, "Furthermore, I am distressed that Coatesville city council meetings begin with prayer." Continuing, Downey said, "Government meetings without religious references are a show of respect for the beliefs of both the majority and the minority. Invocations, no matter how comforting or traditional, no matter how generic or nondenominational, always exclude someone. "It is very rude to show a blatant disrespect to those who may, in all good conscience, practice a different form of religion or none at all."  Downey also quoted Thomas Jefferson, "the clause against establishment of religion by law was intended to erect 'a wall of separation between church and state'."She concluded, "Please adopt a secular neutrality policy as soon as possible."

    In her letter to Ray, Downey wrote, "It is not your responsibility to provide spiritual guidance or religious activities to anyone in the council or at meetings."
In the letter sent to Schenk, Downey wrote, "Not only was it inappropriate for city council president Patsy Ray to enlist you to deliver a prayer, it was highly inappropriate for you to deliver it."  If Downey was expecting a positive response to her comments, expections fell short.  During the comment session, Linda Lavender said, "Ray and Schenk do not change your stance on prayer. Government was ordained by God. I have my thoughts and you have yours. Coatesville needs prayer." Lavender concluded, proclaiming, "I am a Christian." Felicia Seamon noted, "I want to touch base on the topic of prayer. I would pray that the residents of the city don't allow 10 residents to rule us. We need prayer before, during and after meetings." Seamon said she would lead the prayers if council couldn't.  For their part, Schenk and Ray were both adamant.

    Schenk said, "I will address Miss Downey though I've been advised not to." Schenk then read from the state constitution. He concluded, "My intention was not to offend anyone but I will die to defend my Saviour."Ray said, "I will not apologize. God is the head of my house." At the conclusion of the meeting Downey and Flynn asked Acting Police Chief Julius Canale to escort them to their car.