Court will determine Sussex council's prayer policy

Sussex County is in the cross-hairs of the ongoing debate of church vs. state. BY RON MACARTHUR
September 19, 2011

In this politically correct world, Sussex County Council does something so far off the PC chart that it doesn’t register. Council starts each meeting reciting the Lord’s Prayer.

Council’s invocation faces an uncertain future with a pending court case. I’m betting the court will come down hard on the county and force council to change its policy.

Council has recited the prayer for several years, but it’s only over the last couple years that people started paying attention to it. Americans United for Separation of Church and State filed suit June 30, 2010, in U.S. District Court against the county and council on behalf of four county residents. The lawsuit is the September cover story of the organization’s magazine, "Church & State."

In today’s world, everything has to be inclusive. Council could easily say a generic prayer or have clergy people – notice I didn’t write men – of different faiths come in on a rotating schedule to recite a prayer. That would make most people happy.

But it would not make at least two members of council happy at all. Republican conservatives Vance Phillips and Sam Wilson have both told me that men of Christian faith founded this nation on Christian principles. In other words, Christianity is the nation’s religion of choice and council has every right to start a government meeting with a Christian prayer.

Some disagree, but don’t think that all disagree with council’s stand on the Lord’s Prayer.  No one has ever said that Sussex County is a politically correct place.

It’s hard to throw a baseball and not hit a church somewhere in the county. Sussex residents have strong convictions when it comes to religion and what role it plays in government. County voters tend to support candidates with strong Christian backgrounds and conservative views on church and state. Republican ultra-conservative candidate Christine O’Donnell may have lost the U.S. Senate election, but she was a big winner in Sussex.

On the national level, the religious right group Liberty Counsel has told council it will help defend the prayer policy in court.

Would it make a difference if council stopped the prayer and simply started each meeting with the Pledge of Allegiance? Not really, but it probably wouldn’t be long before someone sues to get council to stop saying “one nation under God” in the pledge.

To be honest with you, if it didn't attract attention, I could care less if council started each meeting by doing cartwheels down the aisle. But as a county resident, it seems a waste to spend time and money to defend an ideal that has little or nothing to do with the running of county government. Many times I've heard council members say their primary job is to conduct the land-use business of the county. How does saying the Lord's Prayer fit into the business of the county?

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  • Ron MacArthur has lived and worked in Sussex County all his life. As a journalist for more than 40 years, he has covered everything from county and town meetings to presidential visits. He also has a unique perspective having served as an elected official and lived on both sides of the county.

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