Whose god? Question quashes Island County prayer proposal

Meetings of the Island County commissioners will not begin with a prayer. At least not anytime soon.

Commissioner Kelly Emerson, the board chairperson, proposed instituting a prayer at the beginning of board meetings. She said it was an issue she had been thinking about for months, even before a prayer policy turned into a political minefield for the Oak Harbor City Council.

Emerson asked her fellow commissioners to discuss the idea during Wednesday’s work session. A lone cameraman from a TV news station videotaped the meeting.

Commissioner Jill Johnson previously said she was in favor of the meeting prayer, which made it appear the proposal would be passed 2-1 by the three-member board.

But Johnson changed her mind. Wednesday, she said she prays to Jesus Christ and realized she wasn’t willing to sit through a prayer to another god or a “watered down god.”

Johnson said she had been an advocate for prayer at government meetings and felt that it’s important for elected officials to be reminded that their decisions are about something bigger than themselves. Then she reconsidered.

“I had a very strong opinion about doing it,” she said, “and then began to try on what that meant. And what that meant was in government when you say someone can pray you’re saying they can pray to their god and their god could be Allah, their god could be a priestess, their god could be Mother Earth. And I  began to realize what that would mean for me sitting up there hearing someone pray to a god that’s not my god and it is something I am unwilling to compromise on.”

Johnson said she also thought about what it would be like for people in the audience to have to sit through a prayer to her god or any other god they may not believe in.

“Knowing that I am uncomfortable in a situation where I may be asked to pray to someone else’s god or a watered down version of god or a divine entity turned my stomach,” she said. “I didn’t want to do that” to someone else.

As a result, she concluded it was best to keep prayer out of the public arena.

Likewise, Commissioner Helen Price Johnson said she was against prayers at meeting. She said it’s poor timing, with the Supreme Court considering the issue. She also said it’s not allowed under the state Constitution, which states “no public money or property shall be appropriated to or applied to any religious worship, exercise or instruction.”

Price Johnson said she believes both church and state are important, but serve best when separate. She said she’s taught Sunday school at Langley United Methodist Church for more than 20 years. She said prayer is personal and not for public theatrics; she cited a couple of Bible verses in support of the idea.

One of the verses is Matthew 6:5-7. “And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father.”

Price Johnson accused Emerson of bringing the prayer issue forward just to cause controversy. She noted that a proposed prayer policy recently caused contention in Oak Harbor. Religious leaders and others were upset that a proposed council policy wouldn’t allow a person giving an invocation to say the name of Jesus Christ or any other deity.

The city’s attorney rewrote the policy to take out any such restrictions; the council is scheduled to take up the issue later this month.

Emerson cited her “naivety” and said she had no idea the prayer issue would be controversial. She said she felt opening prayers would move decision makers to reflect on the input and concerns of everyone in the community.

Emerson said she will research the issue further and may bring it back at a future date.

A prayer policy, if approved, would likely allow people of different religions to give the opening prayers. Some government bodies have a prayer policy which states speakers should not  invoke the name of a particular deity, but some people argue such a policy violates their freedom of speech. The Supreme Court is taking up that exact issue this year.

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