Will opening prayer be a lightning rod?

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Crook County Court's addition of opening prayer has potential for controversy

The weeks that follow the Crook County Court's decision to invite local clergy of any faith to offer opening prayers will certainly be interesting.

Whether the practice will move forward relatively controversy-free or become a source of contention is something that remains to be seen, but history suggests that the county might face some challenges as people acclimate to the change.

There are certain subjects in the public realm that will always be lightning rods that attract controversy. Chief among these as we have all seen time and again throughout the history of our country is the relationship between religion and government.

This can be traced back to the formation of the United States when the First Amendment was drafted and included freedom of religion as well as the Establishment Clause, which sought to separate church and state. At the time, many countries had supported a national religion, which this country's leaders hoped to avoid.

Since that time, this separation has been challenged and interpreted time and again as people raised questions about such practices as prayer in schools, the inclusion of "One nation under God" in the Pledge of Allegiance" or currency including the phrase, "In God we trust."

And Crook County is not immune to such controversy. Recall that in early 2011, the Freedom From Religion Foundation threatened legal action regarding the placement of a nativity scene at the doorstep of Prineville City Hall following a citizen complaint to the Wisconsin-based organization. City leaders quickly removed the long-time Christmas decoration, but saw its city council attendance balloon to more than 100 people as elected officials discussed how or if they would display it in the vicinity of city hall again.

In the end, the council chose not to sanction city placement of the decoration. But a local resident paid to reserve the city hall plaza, a rentable space, and open it to any Christmas decoration religious or secular, provided it was not obscene. Ultimately, two decorations graced the area in the years that followed – a nativity scene and a winter solstice display courtesy of the Freedom From Religion Foundation declaring there is no God. Fast forward another four years and the nativity scene can still be found in the plaza each Christmas and little if anything is said about it.

Perhaps that is the path that the county's opening prayer addition follows. Perhaps some will initially resist it and take county leaders to task, while others will embrace the court's decision and commend them for showing the courage to make such a decision in the face of possibly controversy and legal challenges. We have already seen example of both in recent letters to the editor and on our Facebook page.

But the county might also encounter pushback from organizations like the Freedom From Religion Foundation or the American Civil Liberties Union. Government leaders certainly made a wise decision in asking its legal counsel to research case law and determine the current legal standing of opening prayer in government meetings. For now, following a 2014 Supreme Court decision, the practice passes legal muster, so that will likely help should they face any challenges.

Of course this is all contingent upon the county being as inclusive as possible with their invitation of clergy. Drawing from the nativity scene situation, the fact that the Freedom From Religion Foundation's agnostic-themed display was allowed alongside a nativity scene left no basis for a legal challenge. In the same way, the county should be prepared to accept an invocation from whatever faith shows interest – even if it is an unpopular choice among the majority of residents.

Lastly, as county counsel points out, case law associated in any way with the Establishment Clause is subject to change depending on the decisions of the Supreme Court. What is legal now, may not be legal later, and the county must keep a close eye on any new developments that emerge and react accordingly.

What the inclusion of an opening prayer will bring in terms of controversy remains to be seen, but by taking the right steps, they can limit that controversy and maybe even see their idea endure long term.