By Garth Kant

The city council in Rapid City, S.D., which is known for its proximity to the Black Hills and Mt. Rushmore, is finding itself on the front lines of the war on religion.

It opens its meetings with prayer – provided by a list of local ministers – and an atheist group in another state doesn’t like it.

The mayor says it’s “ridiculous.”

“We’ve been doing prayer for perhaps over 100 years; we’ve been able to verify it to at least the 1950s, so it’s been a long standing, cherished and honored tradition,” Rapid City Mayor Sam Kooiker said. “And it’s something that we intend to continue.”

It is the Wisconsin-based Freedom From Religion Foundation that says the prayers are unconstitutional. It recently sent a letter asking the council to stop the prayers, after a resident complained.

“We’ve got an independent streak up here in South Dakota, but we’re not taking this extreme, controversial out-of-state group lightly,” Kooiker says. “We don’t know why they’re picking on Rapid City, but let me tell you this — they’re picking on the wrong mayor, the wrong council and the wrong town.”

City leaders are using the attack to rally their own troops. Following a recent city council meeting, Kooiker sent out an e-newsletter to city employees, vowing to stand firm.

“This issue has brought the entire council and nearly the entire community together,” Kooiker wrote. “We are going to stand and fight this nonsensical effort to remove prayer from our meetings. We aren’t backing down.”

This could be the start of a long battle.

The co-president of the FFFR says, if the prayers continue, the city could end up in court.

Kooiker says, “I would prefer to avoid a legal battle but there simply isn’t support for ending the prayers at council meetings and I do not support ending the prayers.”

The city’s attorney is working on drafting an ordinance that could make the prayers official city practice, in case FFRF does file a lawsuit.

When council members voted to have that ordinance drafted, a number of residents voiced support.

“My generation, my children and my grandchildren need to be able to look at their peers and know they seek out God’s wisdom,” Rapid City prayer supporter Roy Best said. “Because any time God is taken out of our government in any way, that country starts to slide into chaos.”

Some cited the First Amendment’s guarantee of freedom of religion and the Founding Fathers’ emphasis on prayer.

Of the 15 residents at the meeting, only two opposed the prayers, and one of them was a teenage atheist.

According to the Rapid City Journal, Council Member Bill Clayton replied to the teen by giving him Scripture. The paper reports the meeting was filled with “a burst of Biblical quotes and decidedly defiant rhetoric.”

After Mayor Kooiker sent his email supporting prayer, some city employees who disagreed notified the FFRF. The group sent a second letter claiming the mayor’s email and Clayton’s comments violated the separation of church and state.

FFRF wants to replace the prayers with a moment of silence. Kooiker says that will never happen.

“We just don’t like someone who comes in from the outside and decides we have to change our ways,” he says. “That’s never a good way to start a conversation, to come in carrying a big stick. Around here, we think it’s a better idea to address the council in a more civil manner, rather than going right to ‘We’re going to sue you.’ From my perspective, that’s being a bully, and I don’t take well to that.”

FFRF has filed lawsuits in other cases nationwide involving the separation of church and state. That doesn’t scare Kooiker. He cites countless places in South Dakota where public meetings open with prayer. He says the state’s National Guard has chaplains who invoke prayer, and even South Dakota First Lady Linda Daugaard “gave a heartfelt speech in Jesus’ name,” at a recent travel and tourism conference.

City Councilman Chad Lewis also wonders why the anti-prayer people are picking on Rapid City, noting that South Dakota’s Legislature and the U.S. Congress open their sessions with a prayer.

FFRF claims its letter to Rapid City does not explicitly threaten a lawsuit. But the group vows to take its attack on prayer to courts around the nation this year.

Its case may not be as clear-cut as it would like Rapid City officials to believe.

The group’s attorney cited a wide range of case law that seems to indicate the city would have a tough time defending its prayers in court.

But a review of pertinent cases by a Rapid City newspaper shows that most of the citations made by FFRF come from nonbinding lower court decisions.

The paper says, “the most definitive case on government prayer was decided by the Supreme Court three decades ago, and it allowed government prayer.”

“In the case Marsh v. Chambers (1983), Nebraska State Sen. Ernie Chambers sued State Treasurer Frank Marsh and the state generally, claiming the invocations that opened the Nebraska Legislature were unconstitutional. The Presbyterian chaplain who gave the invocations had done so for more than 15 years and was paid a $319.75 monthly stipend, funded by taxpayers.”

“Though the U.S. 8th Circuit Court of Appeals, the circuit that includes South Dakota, found the funding of legislative prayers unconstitutional, the Supreme Court said the prayers as well as the funding of a chaplain were acceptable. The argument was that legislative prayers had long been part of the state’s, and the country’s, ‘unique history.'”

Click here to see some key legal rulings on public prayer in America and how they might affect Rapid City.

As for Mayor Kooiker, he says “There will be plenty of opportunity for notice and comment and for those who have concerns to come forward and to say we believe that this is a practice that should continue or end.”

City Council President Bonny Petersen says, “We invite all religions to come and say a prayer so it’s not like we’re limiting it to Christian, but in our area Christian is the dominant religion.”

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