COATESVILLE, PA - The Coatesville City Council heeded warnings from the Freethought Society of Greater Philadelphia and the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania and backed down from Council members' statements that they would "never" stop using Council meetings to witness to their faith as Christians.
The Council drew public attention at its February 12, 2007 meeting, when Council President Ray, a minister, ordered everyone in the room to stand and hold hands. Councilman Kurt Schenk, also a minister, then delivered a Christian prayer.
The Freethought Society's president, Margaret Downey, asked Ray and Schenk in a February letter to apologize for the prayer. Ms. Downey also asked that City Council adopt a neutral policy on religion. Despite the request, the City Council opened the next meeting on February 26 with The Lord's Prayer, and Schenk and Ray refused to apologize, stating instead that they would continue to witness for their faith from the Council podium.
The ACLU then joined the Freethought Society in demanding an end to sectarian prayers at Council meetings. "Coatesville Council members must cease using their elected positions to promote their personal religious views. That is not only the law - which every elected government official has sworn to uphold - but is also the only way to show respect for the beliefs of all Coatesville residents, regardless of religion or creed," wrote Mary Catherine Roper, staff attorney for the ACLU.
In the policy adopted by unanimous vote Monday, March 12, the Coatesville City Council stated it would no longer allow invocations that proselytize or advance any faith, or show any purposeful preference of one religious view to the exclusion of others. The policy also states that the Council "recognizes its constitutional duty to … amend its policies and ordinances to comply with constitutional requirements". Under the new policy, Council members who so desire will take turns offering invocations before the Council begins its business, and "no prayer should proselytize or advance any faith, or disparage the religious faith or non-religious views of others." Finally, the policy states that it "is intended to acknowledge and express the Council's respect for the diversity of beliefs, religious denominations and faiths represented and practiced among the citizens of the City of Coatesville."
"The use of powerful and controlling governmental positions to proselytize is always divisive and offensive," said Margaret Downey, President of the Freethought Society of Greater Philadelphia. "The newly adopted Coatesville policy regarding prayer is one step forward toward accepting, respecting, and appreciating the wide philosophical and religious diversity of the community."
The Anti-Defamation League, Americans United for Separation of Church and State, and the Jewish Social Policy Action Network will join the Freethought Society and the ACLU in monitoring Coatesville City Council meetings to ensure that the new policy is implemented properly.
A copy of the letter to the Coatesville City Council can be found here.