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Mike Nichols column: I'm praying for Barron County Board

2:44 PM, Feb. 1, 2013  |  Comments
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I stopped by the Barron County Government Center the other day to see if there were any crosses or altars set up - or maybe an inquisition taking place - but all I found was a nondescript, utilitarian building and, on the second floor behind a counter, Jeff French.

French, the county administrator, pulled out a copy of an agenda from a County Board meeting in 1958 and pointed to the part that said "Invocation" - a reference to prayers that have long been said by local clergy.

"Nineteen-fifty-eight is when it started," according to the records, said French. "I've been told by the old-timers that they did it even before that."

That means it only took about 54 years for the Freedom From Religion Foundation to send a letter to the county complaining that the prayers before County Board meetings are "pervasively Christian." The Madison gadfly group reviewed 11 prayers and found that nine were delivered "in Jesus name."

One pastor, the group added, "asked in the name of Jesus to have the Board's sins and even crimes forgiven."

In addition to invoking divine help, that made me wonder if somebody should also be invoking a prosecutor - something Barron County Corporation Counsel John Muench assured me is not necessary. Thank God.

No one on the County Board has been charged with a crime, and it's pretty clear that listening to a prayer at a government meeting (or even at a National Prayer Service attended by the president of the United States) does not constitute one.

"We believe what is going on here is permissible," said Muench. "It is not promoting one particular religion over another. It is not creating a religion. It is just asking for guidance as they move into their meetings" and make decisions.

Assured they're on solid legal ground, the board voted 27-0 recently to keep the prayers right where they are. Seems they basically told the FFRF where to go - and I don't think it was to heaven. Not that, I suppose, the FFRF folks are any more inclined to believe in eternally warmer climes either.

They do believe in lawsuits, on the other hand.

"We are considering litigation," Patrick Elliott, an FFRF attorney, told me, "and what we are doing is monitoring their practices and seeing what they do with the invocation going forward."

"It's not that no prayer can ever be said," Elliott conceded. Prayers just can't be "consistently sectarian," and simply including an occasional leader of another faith might not cut it either. "Inviting a rabbi to say a prayer or an imam to say a prayer, I don't know if that is going to save them if they have 20 consecutive Christian prayers," he said.

The Barron County folks counter that all are welcome. When I asked Board Chairman Jess Miller if a Muslim would be welcome, for instance, he said he didn't see why not. Asked if an atheist could get up there and invoke whatever atheists invoke, he suggested he would have to talk to the attorney.

Then he asked me if I think atheists carry currency that says "In God We Trust" on it.

Maybe, we decided, they just carry credit cards.

Elliott is right that prayer at government meetings can't be an endorsement of any one religion. But that doesn't mean there can't be an acknowledgment of belief. In overwhelmingly Christian small towns of Wisconsin, that's going to translate into a lot of Lutheran and Catholic pastors getting up - which is fine so long as other believers and non-believers are welcome to speak or pray or, I guess, just invoke the everlasting silence as well.

If everybody wasn't welcome back in 1958, they're welcome in most small Wisconsin government board rooms today. I'd wager good currency on it.

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