Village opens meetings with prayer, a practice that is now before the court
Saukville Village President Barb Dickmann opens each Village Board meeting with a moment of silence and a prayer, but she never thought of the gesture as
posturing for a fight.
Still, a scenario with very similar circumstances is at the heart of a case pending before the United States Supreme Court.
Justices heard arguments last month involving a legal challenge of the practice of town officials in Greece, N.Y. opening public meetings with a prayer.
The case was brought by Americans United for Separation of Church and State on behalf of two town residents who claim the practice violates the U.S. Constitution.
That town’s position is being defended by a group called the Alliance Defending Freedom.
The separation of Church and State debate always fans the flames of passion, dating long before the 1983 Supreme Court ruling in Marsh v. Chambers that found that state-sanctioned prayers in front of legislative bodies is permitted because of “the unique history” of the country.
During arguments before the Court on the New York case, defenders noted that even the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives have chaplains who lead public prayer.
Although Dickmann is the only local government executive who recites a prayer before public meetings, she said she isn’t trying to make a political statement.
“It is just something I started doing when I was elected village president 10 years ago,” she said.
“I thought it made sense to reach out to God, the Supreme Power, for direction and help as we deal with the issues in the village.”
Rather than reciting a memorized prayer, Dickmann composes a new meditation for each board meeting.
“I draw some of my inspiration from a daily prayer I receive via e-mail from a publication called Living with Christ. Then I adjust it based on the season of the year, the decisions pending before the board or the issues of the day,” said Dickmann, who is a practicing Catholic.
Even in an era of political correctness, Dickmann unabashedly calls on God and the Lord in her prayers, rather than making a generic religious reference.
“One thing I would never consider is sanitizing the prayer. That is something, minimizing the importance of God in our lives, that is just not in me,” she said.
Dickmann said she has NOT heard any complaints from officials or members of the public on the opening prayer.
“I keep my head bowed when I recite the prayer, so I have no idea how people react, but I have never heard any objection,” Dickmann said.
“I do respect everyone’s beliefs, as well as their right not to believe. If people have a real problem with the practice, they are welcome to step out of the room until I am done.”
Dickmann said the opening prayer is not that far removed from the Pledge of Allegiance, which is also recited at the start of village meetings.
“We still say ‘one nation under God.’ Nobody has removed that wording yet,” she said.
As past president of the League of Wisconsin Municipalities, Dickmann said she is unaware if the group of community leaders ever discussed the topic of prayer at meetings.
“It never came up, one way or the other,” she said.
Dickmann said she couldn’t predict how the Supreme Court might rule in the case, but she intends to continue the practice of praying before meeting.
“If I am ever told I have to stop, it won’t be without me kicking and screaming,” she said.
Dickmann likened the prayer debate to the issue in the community several years ago involving a challenge to a large Nativity scene that used to be displayed by the village in Grady Park.
That controversy, initiated by the same group behind the Supreme Court case, was sidestepped when St. Peter United Church of Christ agreed to take the Nativity and display it on its adjoining property.
The issue still annoys her.
“As Americans, we seem to have gotten away from the majority having a voice. We may be a community which is 80% or 90% Christian, but everyone is afraid of offending the few,” Dickmann said.