Clark County council OKs new invocation guidelines

It acts to ensure practice is inclusive to all, including nonreligious

By Jessica Prokop, Columbian Courts Reporter

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After months of revision and recent public input, the Clark County council on Tuesday unanimously approved a resolution setting guidelines for the invocation given before council meetings.

In 2013, the then-county commission began inviting local clergy to offer an invocation, or prayer, but the county in recent months has been reworking those guidelines to reduce staff time spent on it and to make it more inclusive.

What’s been in dispute is how to allow secular residents to participate in the practice.

The newly adopted guidelines allow groups or individuals “having no religious affiliation” to offer a brief statement or “reflect on the gravity of the moment, seek peace for the nation, wisdom for its lawmakers, and justice for its people, or generally appeal to universal values of our country” before council meetings. Any group or individual may also request a moment of silence in place of an invocation.

Earlier versions of the revisions drew concerns from some secular-minded residents of the county and the Freedom From Religion Foundation, a Wisconsin-based organization that advocates for separation of church and state, that it improperly excluded non-religious people from offering an invocation.

Councilor Eileen Quiring said Tuesday that the new policy is less prescriptive and is legally defensible in all aspects.

“I think we are doing the right thing by including others but also honoring our Creator by allowing somebody to give an invocation,” she said.

Mixed bag of views

More than a half-dozen people spoke during public comment before the vote and offered a mixed bag of thoughts on the invocation.

Vancouver’s James Maynard told the council that he thinks the proposed guidelines are an improvement over the old. However, the issues of expense and possible litigation are unnecessary, he said, and “there is no legal requirement for the council to begin any of its meetings with an invocation.”

As far as he can tell, he said, there was no invocation before March 2013.

“We can save much grief and expense to our taxpayers by simply repealing that mischievous resolution,” he said, and urged the council not to “mix politics and religion.”

“These two topics tend to inflame disputes, as they are related to how we identify ourselves,” Maynard said.

Dr. Greg Romine from King’s Church disagreed.

He told the council that “historically, we are a people who trust in God. It’s stated on our money and in our Declaration of Independence.”

People’s values are rooted in their faith, he argued, and it’s not proper for any group, minority or majority, to tell them to set aside their faith.

Bridget McLeman of Hazel Dell told the council the invocation is a “waste of time.”

“No one is saying that you shouldn’t pray inside yourselves. But we do not need to have an invocation at the beginning of each meeting,” she said. “It’s just not appropriate.”

Another speaker, Richard Prentice of Vancouver, told the council that he thinks everyone is “making too much of a thing about this.”

“Now people are going to start talking about ‘In God We Trust.’ … But that just goes back to the two former commissioners that people are still angry at,” he said.

He argued that the councilors shouldn’t have to pray in a back room.

‘Open to all’

Councilor John Blom told those in attendance that the question that keeps being raised is whether the council should pray. But that’s not what the invocation resolution is about; it’s about whether prayer should be on the agenda, and if so, how to make it inclusive.

Councilor Julie Olson agreed.

“One of the things that we have to remember is that this is a public meeting, it’s a public facility. We need to make sure we’re open to all,” she said. “I think we do have to be careful that we’re not seen as promoting any particular faith. … It’s an emotional topic. People have very deeply held beliefs, but I do think we have to remember and respect the minority voices that may or may not believe the way any one of us believes.”

The board unanimously voted for the invocation resolution, after further tweaking some of the language.