A local government in a conservative state recently made a surprising decision – it voted not to open its meetings with an official prayer.

The Ketchikan, Alaska, Gateway Borough Assembly voted this week not to incorporate official invocations into its meeting agenda by a count of 5-2.

Given the controversial nature of this issue, there was quite a bit of debate before the vote. KTOO News, an Alaska radio network, reported that 10 people spoke in favor of official prayer and eight against it.

Those against it noted correctly that government-sponsored prayers have a tendency to divide communities, even if participation is not technically mandatory.  

“Giving it an official place on the agenda makes me feel that if I don’t pray, and do not participate, you will not give my opinions the same weight as someone who does,” said resident Becky King. “I will not be voting for anyone who supports this proposal. You are here to unite the community, not needlessly divide it.”

Others expressed similar sentiment.

“You will alienate me from this assembly if you pass ordinance 1740, because I do not believe in God,” said resident Don Westlund. “And there’s other people who probably do not.”

Westlund added that a government meeting is a place of public business and not a church.

Members of the local faith community, of course, disagreed. One minister said official prayers would help the community thrive.

“I believe that this blessing has caused our nation to prosper in a very powerful way,” the Rev. Fred Adams of Free Methodist church in Ward Cove said.

Another local pastor said prayer is needed because everyone is better off with a little help from God.

“The real issue is whether or not you believe that in your personal wisdom, you can make better decisions by yourself as this governing body than you can by appealing to almighty God,” said Gary Souza of the Ketchikan Church of Christ. “That’s a rhetorical question. Of course you cannot.”

Still others said prayer is essential to warding off nefarious forces that may wish the Ketchikan Gateway Borough Assembly harm.

“[T]here are those praying against what you’re doing, against what you represent,” said Pastor Bill White of the Lighthouse Church of God.

Unsurprisingly, White gave no indication of just who, exactly, is “praying against” his local government – or why anyone would wish to do so.

Any member of government (or their constituents) is certainly welcome to seek guidance from God, but it’s pretty clear that no one needs government-sponsored prayer in order to do that. Perhaps the majority of the assembly is aware of this and that’s why the members decided not to institute an official-prayer policy.

Despite the decision against sponsored prayers, it seems the matter is not settled. Following the vote, White asked if citizens might be allowed to offer prayers during periods of public comment at meetings. Mayor David Landis said there is room for that sort of thing.

Assembly Member Todd Philips later said this possibility worried him because the open forum could easily be hijacked by people who just want to say prayers.

Americans United has long said that the best option for local governments is to avoid official, government-sponsored prayer altogether. But if a town council insists on doing it, all viewpoints have to be welcome. That’s no easy task, which is why we’re glad to see the Gateway Borough Assembly decided not to wade into this constitutionally messy issue.