County forges agreement to keep prayer at council meetings

At their meeting on Sept. 11, Sussex County Council members approved an agreement with litigants that will allow the council to say a prayer at the beginning of each meeting. A lawsuit filed in June of 2011 had contended that the council’s recital of the “Lord’s Prayer” before meetings violated the establishment clause of the United States Constitution, as well as the Delaware Constitution’s corresponding provision.

As a result of the suit and a preliminary injunction, since June 15, council members have been reciting Psalm 23 before meetings.

According to the case filed in the summer of 2011, the plaintiffs — Barbara Mullin, Julie Jackson, the Rev. John Steinbruck and William O’Connor — each contended that they were offended by the council’s recitation of the “Lord’s Prayer.”

“Two of the Plaintiffs, who are Christians, are offended because they feel that the Council’s practice co-opts and debases their faith. The other two plaintiffs are non-Christian and are offended because they feel the council’s practice demeans and excludes their beliefs,” synopsized Judge Leonard P. Stark of the United States District Court for the district of Delaware, as background in his order in May of this year.

Instead of filing an answer to the original lawsuit, the County filed a motion to dismiss in August 2011, claiming that the plaintiffs “lack standing to bring their claims and that the complaint fails to state a claim upon which relief can be granted.”

In May of this year, Stark ordered that the County’s motion to dismiss be denied and the plaintiff’s motion for a preliminary injunction be granted.

Stark wrote, “Plaintiffs’ allegations that the Council violated the Establishment Clause by endorsing one religion — Christianity, and specifically Protestant Christianity — over all other religions is at least one of the exact interests protected by the Establishment Clause.”

He stated that the plaintiffs had “demonstrated a likelihood of success on the merits of their claim that the Council’s practice of opening meetings with a recitation of the ‘Lord’s Prayer’ is unconstitutional.”

He also stated that, “Moreover, the Court determines that it is likely to conclude that the council’s practice of opening each meeting with a recitation of this distinctly Christian ‘Lord’s Prayer’ violates the Establishment Clause because it constitutes government endorsement of the Christian faith. The fact that the ‘Lord’s Prayer’ has been the only prayer recited at the beginning of council meetings for over six years is likely to be found to demonstrate that the Council gives Christianity an unconstitutionally preferred status, sending a message to meeting attendees that the council is promoting the beliefs of Christianity.”

The detailed terms of the agreement between the plaintiffs and the County were not announced this week, pending court approval.

Relief requested by the plaintiffs included an injunction, a declaratory judgment and nominal damages.

County officials said the agreement effectively ends more than a year of litigation that threated to end a tradition they said is viewed by many as central to the way of life in Sussex County.

Council President Michael Vincent expressed satisfaction that both parties have come to a place of compromise.

“Prayer is an important part of the lives of so many Sussex Countians,” Vincent said. “While this body represents all Sussex County residents, who come from a variety of faiths and walks of life, we firmly believe it is our right — and our duty — to honor the traditions of the past, and to ask for divine guidance each week as we conduct the people’s business. I am happy that both sides have reached an amicable resolution — one that respects the rule of law, but preserves Council’s prerogative to have a legislative prayer.”