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Parkersburg council asked to end pre-meeting prayer

PARKERSBURG, W.Va. — A national group is asking Parkersburg City Council to no longer say the Lord’s Prayer prior to public meetings.

The Wisconsin-based Freedom From Religion Foundation sent a letter to council requesting the prayer be discontinued.

“Prayer at government meetings is unnecessary, inappropriate and divisive,” Patrick Elliot, staff attorney for the foundation, said in the letter.

“City council members are free to pray privately or to worship on their own time in their own way. They do not need to worship on taxpayers’ time.”

In the letter, Elliot said the prayer violates the law by discriminating against citizens who are not religious. Because everyone in the chamber is asked to stand for the prayer, it requires those residents “to either make a public showing of their nonbelief or show deference to a religious sentiment they do not believe in, but which their city council members clearly do.”

Elliot also points out the Lord’s Prayer is “a distinctively Christian prayer,” which excludes other religions.

The foundation has asked city council to discontinue use of the prayer and to “inform us in writing of the steps you are taking to resolve this matter.”

Council President J.R. Carpenter, to whom the letter was addressed, said he passed the letter on to City Attorney Joe Santer.

“That is a legal issue, and that is why we have an attorney,” Carpenter said.

Santer was not immediately available for comment Monday.

Mayor Jimmy Colombo said Monday the prayer will remain in place.

“I don’t see us changing that,” he said.

City Clerk Connie Shaffer, who began working for the city in 1972, said the prayer has been a part of council meetings for as long as she can remember “and probably 100 years before that.”

She said the practice did change slightly three or four years ago.

“If you’ll notice, we have it before we call the meeting to order,” she said.

Use of a prayer to open a meeting is done “in Congress, in the United States Senate. They do it in Charleston” at the West Virginia Legislature, Colombo said. “The prayer is optional and is done before the meeting starts. I don’t see anything wrong with that.

“If you don’t want to say a prayer, sit down and don’t say a prayer.”

Carpenter said the meetings are not officially called to order until after the prayer and Pledge of Allegiance have been said.

“That is a voluntary prayer and pledge prior to the meeting,” he said.

Councilman John Rockhold, who was first elected in the 1990s and is now in his third term on council, echoed Colombo’s and Carpenter’s comments.

“The prayer is not part of council proceedings,” he said. “We’re not doing anything illegal. It is not a requirement. It is there for those that want to pray.”

Rockhold questioned why a group based in Wisconsin has taken such an interest in Parkersburg, W.Va.

“In lieu of the challenges we’ve experienced lately,” he said, “a little bit of prayer won’t hurt us at all.”

In 2014, the Freedom From Religion Foundation sent a complaint to Wood County Schools, protesting a Bible phrase displayed inside Parkersburg South High School’s gymnasium and on t-shirts worn by the school’s wrestling team. Then-Superintendent Pat Law had the phrase painted over in the gym and asked team members to store the shirts at the end of the wrestling season. The move led to protests by South students, educators and community members who distributed more of the shirts sporting the Bible phrase.

In February, the foundation sent a letter of complaint to Jackson County Schools requesting the removal of angels in a memorial garden at Ravenswood Middle School. The foundation said a parent at the school also complained about a Christian-themed holiday performance at the school which students were required to attend.

Later that month, the group filed a complaint with the Roane County Commission over a Nativity scene displayed on county property during Christmas season.

Reporter Evan Bevins contributed to this report.

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