Locals Watching Parkersburg Council Meeting Prayer Lawsuit

WHEELING — City Council here opens each meeting with an inspirational reading, while Moundsville also uses prayer to begin public council sessions.

But those activities could come into question if the Freedom From Religion Foundation based in Madison, Wisconsin, gets its way in a lawsuit it filed against the city of Parkersburg. The group is contesting Parkersburg council’s reading of the Lord’s Prayer before each meeting.

In Wheeling, council meetings start with a reading from the book “Prayers: Offered By The Chapline Of The Senate of the U.S.” Inside is an inscription from former U.S. Sen. Jennings Randolph, D-W.Va.

“I cannot speak to the past or present practices of Parkersburg City Council,” Wheeling Mayor Glenn Elliott said. “Here in Wheeling, city council meetings have long been initiated by a brief, generally non-denominational prayer followed by the Pledge of Allegiance.

“As I understand it, such prayers to open meetings of governing bodies fall well within the ‘legislative prayer’ guidelines of Supreme Court jurisprudence,” he said. “To my knowledge, we have received no complaints.”

The group that has filed the lawsuit says its purpose is to promote the constitutional principle of separation of state and church, and to educate the public on matters relating to nontheism, according to its website.

It is mainly opposed to the repeated proliferation of the same religious content at the exclusion of other beliefs, said Chris Line, a legal fellow with FFRF.

“A moment of silence is fine,” he said.

“It’s the repetition of prayer we have an issue with. But even if it were switched out and replaced with another Christian prayer, this would still would be problematic.

“What is so egregious is there is just the one Christian prayer being repeated,” said Lane. “That is what causes the most constitutional issue.”

As a solution, cities should seek to include readings from all types of religions, and even those who are non-religious, Line said.

The FFRF filed suit in 2016 against the U.S. House Chaplain Patrick Conroy, members of his staff and House Speaker Paul Ryan over the issue of the opening prayer given daily before the House. The suit came after FFRF Co-President Dan Barker was rejected from delivering a secular guest invocation to the House.

In Moundsville, Mayor Allen Hendershot begins each council meeting by offering a prayer.

“It’s a general prayer for the whole public and non-denominational,” said Vice Mayor Phil Remke. “It is about thanking the Lord for the day, and giving us the right direction to make a better city.”

He termed the FFRF’s lawsuit against the city of Parkersburg “ridiculous.”

“We need the Lord in many ways,” he said. “We need him more and more each day, and his presence.”