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Court says Amen to prayers before public meetings

Alexandria City Council members bowed their heads in prayer before their meeting Monday night at City Hall. They include (left to right) Todd Jensen, Dave Benson, Mayor Sara Carlson, Owen Miller, Roger Thalman and Virgil Batesole. (Al Edenloff/Echo Press)

A U.S. Supreme Court ruling last week confirmed what local government leaders have believed for years: Prayer at meetings is OK.

In a 5-4 decision, the court ruled that a New York town board wasn’t violating the Constitution when it invoked the name of Jesus Christ in prayers before its meetings.

The court said that local government meetings don’t have to become “religious-free” zones, even if the prayers specify a single faith tradition.

The Alexandria City Council has reserved a spot on its agenda for an “invocation” for the past four or five years. It takes place right after the Pledge of Allegiance, while everyone at the meeting is still standing up.

Council member Owen Miller suggested adding a prayer back in August 2009. He noted that the U.S. Congress and both houses of the Minnesota Legislature open their sessions with prayers.

After mulling over the idea for a few months, the council eventually included the prayer. It contacted the Alexandria Area Ministerial Association and set up a rotation of pastors to lead the prayers before the start of the meetings.

The only guidelines are for the pastors to keep their message to two or three minutes.

The prayers typically focus on asking for heavenly guidance to help government leaders make good decisions.

Alexandria Mayor Sara Carlson said that although the council was apprehensive at first about the community’s reaction to mixing God and government, the prayer has generated positive feedback.

“Since I’ve been mayor [2013], just one person wrote me about it,” she said. “I’ve had dozens of people thank me for the prayer.”

Carlson said that starting a meeting with a prayer sets a positive tone for the debate to follow.

“I think it’s a neat thing we do,” she said. “Sometimes we have a work session before our meeting that is difficult and it’s nice to have that moment, when we’re praying, to clear your head. It helps you focus.”

The Douglas County Board of Commissioners added a prayer to its meetings on December 28, 2010.

Bev Bales, board chair, said that the county doesn’t have specific guidelines for the pastors to follow and that most of their messages are brief.

Bales said she’s hasn’t heard of any complaints or comments about the prayers.

Al Edenloff
Al Edenloff is the news and opinion page editor for the Echo Press. He was born in Alexandria and lived most of his childhood in Parkers Prairie. He graduated with honors from Moorhead State University with a degree in mass communications, print journalism. He interned at the Echo Press in the summer of 1983 and was hired a year later as a sports reporter. He also worked as a news reporter/photographer. Al is a four-time winner of the Minnesota Newspaper Association's Herman Roe Award, which honors excellence in editorial writing.  
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