Nov 23, 2009

Americans United for Separation of Church and State has again warned the Cleveland City Council that it is violating the law by consistently opening its meetings with sectarian prayers.

In a letter sent today, attorneys with Americans United say Cleveland officials have misconstrued court rulings in an effort to continue the constitutionally problematic practice.

“Cleveland officials are clearly endorsing Christianity through their actions,” said the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United. “They appear to be knowingly violating the law, and it’s time for them to stop.”

This is the third time Americans United has written to the council over this matter. Americans United first wrote to the council about its prayer policy on March 3, 2009. The council ignored that letter, so AU followed up with another on June 4.

In its letters, AU pointed out that the Supreme Court and lower federal courts have required that prayers before government bodies be non-sectarian. AU also noted that the prayers in Cleveland lack religious diversity.

In a response to AU’s second letter, Patricia Britt, clerk of the council, defended the council’s policies. Britt insisted that the council does not have to use non-sectarian prayer.

Americans United says Britt’s analysis is simply wrong.

Observes AU’s letter, “We write to you a third time to demonstrate that the Council is thoroughly mistaken about the law governing legislative prayer, to point out that the Council has, for years, overwhelmingly featured Christian prayergivers, and to request, again, that the Council end its practice of allowing sectarian prayer and that the Council invite a more diverse array of prayergivers to offer the opening prayer.”

The AU letter goes on to outline several decisions that have struck down sectarian prayer before government bodies. One of them, Coles v. Cleveland Board of Education, is a 1999 opinion by the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals striking down the use of Christian prayers before the meetings of the city’s Board of Education.

The letter also notes that from Jan. 8, 2007, to Oct. 19, 2009, there have been 79 council meetings featuring prayer, and 77 times, the prayergiver was Christian – a ratio of 97.5 percent.

Britt asserted in her June letter that the council is trying to diversify, but in light of these figures, AU called the attempt “a comically lopsided preference for Christian prayergivers.”

Americans United’s letter was signed by AU Legal Director Ayesha N. Khan and Staff Attorney Ian Smith.