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Prayer always on Sycamore City Council's agenda

Published: Thursday, Oct. 21, 2010 5:30 a.m. CDT
Caption
(Wendy Kemp - For the Daily Chronicle)
Sycamore police Chief Donald Thomas greets Diaconal Minister Judy Bergeson before Monday's city council meeting. Bergeson said a prayer before the meeting began.

SYCAMORE – At Sycamore City Council meetings, a prayer for good judgment and leadership has been the norm for more than 30 years.

An invocation is the second agenda item, after the council’s meeting is called to order. Sycamore Mayor Ken Mundy, who was the city’s treasurer for more than 20 years, said the council has started its meeting with an invocation for as long as he can remember, and it’s something the council is comfortable with.

But that’s not the case everywhere. Last month, the American Civil Liberties Union sued the town of Point Pleasant Beach, N.J., for beginning its borough council meetings with a recitation of the Lord’s Prayer. The ACLU acted on complaints by a former borough employee who is Jewish. She said she was distressed for years by hearing the prayer before each meeting.

The suit alleges the prayer violates the state constitution’s ban on government showing preference to one religion. For now, a moment of silence will replace the prayer.

In Illinois, the General Assembly opens sessions with prayer. John Farrell, DeKalb County state’s attorney, said “there is no absolute prohibition to that sort of thing” in the state, but he also said that any public body that did do a prayer of some sort would have to treat every religion equally and open it to any religious faith.

“I’m not saying that it is legal, I just don’t see there is a ... law that prohibits it,” he said.

In Sycamore, various local pastors and ministers take turns giving the brief invocation. Mundy said the prayer often involves words such as “guidance” and “wisdom,” as well as statements asking that council members make appropriate decisions for the community.

“It’s the kind of thing I’m very comfortable with and the council is, and I’m just happy we do it,” Mundy said. The invocation isn’t a sermon, he said; it’s simply a time for “an appeal to a higher power” to keep the meeting civil and make sure decisions benefit residents.

“I just think it adds to the meeting, especially if you’re going to head into a difficult meeting,” Mundy said.

Genoa City Administrator Joe Misurelli said the Genoa City Council does not say a prayer at the beginning of its meetings and hasn’t in the seven years he’s been with the city. DeKalb Mayor Kris Povlsen said the issue hasn’t come up at DeKalb City Council meetings.

Povlsen added that he’s open to discussion if a council member or resident brings up the idea of saying a prayer at council meetings. He said he doesn’t have a strong feeling one way or another on the topic.

County board member Ken Andersen, R-Sycamore, would like to see a prayer at the beginning of full board meetings. When Andersen brought up the issue last year, it never left the board’s ad hoc rules committee. He said he was disappointed because he wanted to hear what other board members thought about the idea.

“My church and religion is very important to me,” said Andersen, who is Roman Catholic. “... I personally would like to see a prayer at the beginning of the meeting. We need all the help we can get.”

Andersen said any invocation must be nondenominational to include those of any religion. Though it was previously shot down, he plans to pursue the prayer issue in the future.

“I just think it’s something we certainly should reconsider,” he added.

Ruth Anne Tobias, DeKalb County Board chairwoman, said she’s not in favor of a prayer being said at the beginning of a county board meeting because the idea could violate separation of church and state. When asked if it was an issue many board members would be in favor of, Tobias, D-DeKalb, said, “I would say probably not.”

Mundy said the separation of church and state issue is “just clearly not applicable here,” adding that religion is tied to the country’s heritage and foundation.

Deacon Charles Ridulph with the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod has provided the invocation at a number of Sycamore City Council meetings. He said even non-Christians “acknowledge the power of prayer.”

“Even though you have various faith groups there, I’ve never seen it to be divisive,” Ridulph said of the council meetings. “I think it’s important. I think it sets the tone for their meeting.”

• The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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