Dolores Pomerleau may be a devout Roman Catholic and former nun, but she is no fan of government-endorsed sectarian invocations.
So when Pomerleau found out that the town council of Brentwood, Md., had agreed to stop saying the Lord’s Prayer to open its meetings, she was glad – but not surprised.
“I had expected that we would prevail in this from the very beginning,” she told Church & State. “I had been telling [the town council] I was pretty sure this was unconstitutional.”
Thanks to Americans United, which brought a lawsuit in February on behalf of Pomerleau and fellow resident Anne Christine Warden, the town council agreed Oct. 16 to settle Pomerleau v. Town of Brentwood and permanently end its sectarian prayer practice.
“I am pleased that the council will discontinue its practice of reciting the Lord’s Prayer,” Americans United Executive Director Barry W. Lynn said in a press release. “Government must not be in the business of favoring one faith over others. Every citizen should be welcome at governmental meetings, no matter how they may feel about religion.”
The victory came quickly, at least in legal time, but it was nonetheless the culmination of more than a year of work by Americans United on behalf of Pomerleau and Warden.
Pomerleau, who served as a nun between 1963 and 1975, is active in community affairs. She is chair of the Brentwood Fire House Committee, which offers advice to the town council on upkeep for a fire-house building. As a result, she has attended council meetings for four years. She said each session began with recitation of the Lord’s Prayer.
Warden is a member of the Gateway Arts District Community Development Corporation, which promotes neighborhood development and the arts in the Brentwood area. (The town, which has about 3,000 residents, is just north of Washington, D.C.) Warden, who is a Buddhist and an interfaith minister, has attended council meetings to address issues related to the Gateway Arts District, and she, too, has heard the Lord’s Prayer before town council sessions.
In fact, according to AU’s complaint every meeting began with then-Mayor Roger Rudder leading the overtly Christian Lord’s Prayer. (Then-Vice Mayor Aneeka Harrison often led the devotional in Rudder’s absence.)
Something of a ritual evolved: Council members would rise in unison, clasp their hands and bow their heads during the recitation. Those in the audience were even asked to stand or join in.
When Pomerleau, who is a founder of the grassroots social justice organization The Quixote Center, first challenged the official invocations in December 2011, her complaint was predictably not well received. The council’s official minutes show that Rudder stated that he “takes umbrage” at the “attack on the Lord’s Prayer” and affirmed his belief that the council should continue reciting it.
“I became involved in the case after attending one of these meetings and feeling uncomfortable and somewhat outraged,” she told Church & State previously. “I thought separation of church and state was settled law in the United States and to see this being violated in my own community is disheartening.”
Americans United decided to intervene in April 2012, sending a letter to insist that the town council cease sponsoring recitation of the Lord’s Prayer or at least revise its prayer policy to allow non-sectarian prayer, as court rulings mandate.
The council never bothered to respond to AU’s letter. Five months later, AU attorneys tried again, asking that the policy be revised or ended.
While the council never formally replied, it did make a curious alteration: The name of the invocation in the council agenda was changed to a “moment of silence and/or prayer.”
In reality, however, things stayed the same; the mayor and council members continued to recite the Lord’s Prayer.
And when AU’s attorneys followed up with another letter requesting copies of public records, the council ignored that missive too.
In an interview with the Prince George’s County Gazette in November 2012, Rudder, who served as a council member from 2005-2009 and became mayor in 2011, acknowledged that he could not remember a time when the town council did not open its meetings with the Lord’s Prayer.
Rudder added that no one is forced to pray even though the audience is asked to stand. He also said that he doesn’t consider the Lord’s Prayer to be Christian because it makes no reference to Jesus.
“I claim my right as a citizen to pray before I start a meeting,” Rudder told the Gazette. “They have their rights as atheists to do whatever they want.”
Rudder also told The Washington Times, “I’m very offended by the fact that [Americans United] even sent me a letter. When we begin our meetings, those who wish to pray can say a short prayer. Others can observe a moment of silence.”
Rudder’s line of argument lacked a few facts: Pomerleau and Warden don’t identify as atheists, and multiple courts have said that the Lord’s Prayer is associated with Christianity.
As for Rudder’s claim that attendees could observe a moment of silence, Warden said that was hard to do when vocal prayer was being said at the same time.
“The ‘moment of silence’ part is lost when our town leaders stand and pronounce such a quintessentially Christian prayer out loud,” she told Church & State earlier this year. “It makes me feel like I’m attending a religion-specific event, not a civic meeting where everyone’s views are encouraged.”
As a result, Americans United attorneys felt they had no choice but to take formal legal action, filing Pomerleau v. Town of Brentwood in the U.S. District Court for the District of Maryland on Feb. 26, 2013.
It seemed the two sides were in for a bitter legal battle, until democracy intervened. Rudder and the rest of the town council members who supported the Lord’s Prayer got booted from office in May.
Warden told Church & State that voters were not happy with Rudder’s leadership.
“The whole community could see how unresponsive the Rudder administration was to many parts of the community, including alternative religious points of view,” Warden said.
The new mayor, Bettyjean Bailey-Schmiedigen, said before the election that if she won, she would not continue the council’s old prayer policy. Bailey-Schmiedigen kept her promise, and that ultimately enabled the two sides to come up with a settlement. Like Pomerleau, Warden said she wasn’t surprised by the outcome.
“I expected a settlement with our new administration, which is less prone to proselytizing,” she said.
“We are very pleased that the town council chose to resolve this matter now rather than prolong this case for many months at great cost to taxpayers,” added AU Legal Director Ayesha N. Khan.
Both plaintiffs said they were grateful for AU’s work in the defense of religious freedom.
“I can only express my utmost gratitude to Americans United,” Pomerleau said. “I think [AU] did a wonderful, professional job. We couldn’t have done it without you. I’m just in awe.”