Miami, Fla., is a major American city with extraordinary diversity. Why in the world would its elected leaders want to impose religion on its citizenry?
Yet the Miami/Dade Commission did just that this week. The commissioners voted 8-3 to scrap the moment of silence that has been observed at their meetings and move to spoken prayers.
According to the Miami Herald, the prayers “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.”
The new policy came at the behest of Anthony Verdugo and his Christian Family Coalition, a small but noisy Religious Right group. The Herald said the fundamentalist Christian outfit has been lobbying for official prayers for 18 months in a bid to replace the moment of silence that has been observed since 2004.
Verdugo is an odd guy for the commission to turn to for advice. His record is, shall we say, checkered. In 2002, he and three others affiliated with the Florida Christian Coalition were charged with petition fraud for funny business surrounding an anti-gay ballot referendum.
According to Christianity Today, Verdugo, then head of the Christian Coalition’s Miami/Dade chapter, was charged with falsely swearing to having witnessed signatures, a third-degree felony. Officials said there was evidence that at least some of the petition signatures were faked, but they weren’t sure who did it.
Special prosecutor John Aguero told the Miami Herald, "All a handwriting expert will tell you is that the person whose name on it is not the one who signed. These are people who certainly committed a fraud on the public. That's why they are being prosecuted."
The Herald says the charges were dropped after Verdugo completed a “pretrial intervention” program for defendants without criminal pasts. But in 2003, the Christian Coalition disbanded its Miami-Dade chapter and removed Verdugo as its chairman. The Orlando Sentinel said Christian Coalition leaders were coy about the reasons.
"We were moving in directions that were not compatible," said Carolyn Kunkle, deputy director of the Florida Christian Coalition. The newspaper said she would not elaborate.
That’s when Verdugo formed his new group, the Christian Family Coalition, and headed off on his own.
It seems to me that if Verdugo is too obnoxious to get along with his fellow theocrats in the Christian Coalition, that ought to tell Miami/Dade commissioners something about whom they’re dealing with. Apparently it didn’t.
After the vote, Verdugo hailed the commission for “moving into the 21st century” and for ending “8½ years of discrimination.”
In fact, Verdugo has things upside-down. The commission didn’t move Miami into the 21st century, it moved it backward toward the dark time when religion and government were merged in America. And commissioners didn’t end discrimination, they abetted it by effectively declaring some residents as second-class citizens.
As Commissioner Sally Heyman put it, the measure is “discriminatory and unfair to members of the community to be subjected to a religious point of view.”
Said Heyman, “This legislation is unnecessary. I believe it is dangerous, and it exposes us to litigation.”
Heyman is exactly right. The federal courts have generally held that the Constitution allows non-sectarian prayer before governmental meetings. But if the new policy results in a bias toward one particular faith, a lawsuit is almost certain.
The Herald editorialized against the change, warning of the dangers of a lawsuit.
“There’s a time to pray and a time to legislate,” the newspaper said, “and that time is not the same…. This will do nothing to improve the county’s economy, rev up the housing industry or help create jobs.”
A moment of silence excluded no one. The new policy certainly does. The Miami/Dade Commission has undercut church-state separation and individual freedom.