Georgia County Panel's Prayers Contested

Prayers at the start of government meetings in Georgia's Cobb County draw a lawsuit from five people who say the practice is unconstitutional. Susanna Capelouto of Georgia Public Radio says the case has prompted fresh debate on the relationship of church and state.

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Saying a prayer before local and state government meetings is commonplace around the country. Like prayer in schools, this practice has become a legal battleground over the role of prayer in public places. A lawsuit in Cobb County, Georgia, charges that prayers at county meetings give preference to the Christian religion and are, therefore, unconstitutional. From Georgia Public Broadcasting, Susanna Capelouto has more.


Religion matters in Cobb County. The affluent, conservative Atlanta suburb has some of the South's most prosperous churches. Evangelical Protestants make up the largest denomination here, and government meetings start with Chairman Sam Olens' introduction of the clergy of the day.

Mr. SAM OLENS (Chairman, Cobb County Commissioners) Today's invocation will be given by the Reverend Mark Walker, pastor of Mount Paran North Church of God. For all those who wish to do so, please rise.

CAPELOUTO: Pastor Walker asks a `Heavenly Father' to give commissioners wisdom, knowledge and insight.

Reverend MARK WALKER (Pastor, Mount Paran North Church of God): We ask it now in Jesus' name. Amen.

CAPELOUTO: Now five residents of Cobb County have sued, saying Christian prayers before government meetings are unconstitutional because they violate the First Amendment. They say the prayers represent the establishment of religion by government. Maggie Garrett with the ACLU is one of their attorneys.

Ms. MAGGIE GARRETT (Attorney, American Civil Liberties Union): The problem with the prayers is that the overwhelming majority of the prayers mention Jesus, Jesus Christ or some sort of reference that makes it clear that it's a Christian prayer as opposed to a more inclusive prayer that could be to many gods or any god, rather than a particularly Christian god.

CAPELOUTO: The lawsuit asks that all prayers before county meetings be non-sectarian, meaning that they are not specific to one religion. The county believes that they are within the law because all religious leaders listed in the phone book are invited to give the invocation. Robert Quigley is the spokesperson for Cobb County.

Mr. ROBERT QUIGLEY (Cobb County Spokesperson): Certainly, we don't believe our actions are unconstitutional, and I don't think there's anything that prohibits a person from having freedom of speech and saying `Jesus Christ' or making any other references. When we have rabbis up here, certainly that's not an issue. And it's just a matter of reflection of the community, and we have three synagogues in Cobb County and probably several hundred Christian churches.

CAPELOUTO: Quigley says the county does not favor one religion over another. After all, he says, the county chairman is Jewish and the imam from the only mosque in the county has prayed before meetings. Recently in Great Falls, South Carolina, the courts found that prayers at town meetings did favor the Christian religion. There, only Christian denominations were invited. Legal scholars say there is some question about how governments achieve a non-sectarian requirement. Michael Broyde is with the Emory school of law.

Mr. MICHAEL BROYDE (Emory School of Law): There's no explicit case law that deals with the question of whether non-sectarian needs to be an event that takes place all the time, or can you establish non-sectarian by having many different sects speak consecutively? And this is, in fact, a matter that will undoubtedly be litigated.

CAPELOUTO: The Supreme Court has allowed religious ceremonies in the public square as long as they are voluntary. But plaintiff Ed Buckner says until the Cobb County chairman introduces the clergy, there's no way to know what the prayer will be and no time to leave.

Mr. ED BUCKNER (Plaintiff): Is the prayer today going to be non-sectarian, which is what we're asking that it always be, or is it going to be a Christian prayer or is it going to be a Jewish prayer or Wiccan or free thought or secular humanist anti-prayer? All of these things, I suppose, are possible, and a citizen does not have any knowledge in advance.

CAPELOUTO: Lawyers for Cobb County have until next month to answer the charges made by Buckner and the other plaintiffs. Local governments throughout Georgia will be closely watching the outcome of this case. For NPR News, I'm Susanna Capelouto in Atlanta.

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