Group Asks Wheeling to Stop Prayers at City Council Meetings

WHEELING — A formal objection was raised earlier this month to Wheeling City Council’s practice of opening meetings with prayer.

In a letter dated Jan. 9 addressed to Mayor Glenn Elliott, attorney Brenda Johnson, on behalf of the Wisconsin-based Freedom From Religion Foundation, asked council to stop the practice, which, the letter states, “represents an unconstitutional endorsement of Christianity.”

The letter describes the legal basis for the request, specifically the 2017 case of Lund v. Rowan County, North Carolina, where the county board of commissioners also opened each session with a prayer, often with sectarian references to Christianity, and no other faiths were allowed or asked to take part in the prayers. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit ruled that the board’s practices violated the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment, as the board “elevated one religion above all others and aligned itself with that faith.”

Johnson’s letter states Wheeling’s prayers closely resemble those of the case, as council members offer prayers that are “invariably Christian, often include sectarian references, and ignore vocal challenges by members of the community.”

“Like the board in Lund, the Wheeling City Council violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment because it ‘elevate(s) one religion above all others and align(s) itself with that faith,'” the letter states.

Such challenges were heard in recent council meetings when resident Josh Riffle, on at least two occasions, objected to prayer being led by members of council. After Riffle’s objections were heard at the beginning of council meetings, the prayer was offered as usual. The foundation stated that it was alerted to the situation in Wheeling by “a concerned Wheeling citizen and taxpayer.”

The letter also referenced that of all council meetings in 2019 where a recording was available, the meeting began with a Christian prayer led by council, with one exception — on March 5, a minister was invited to instead give a Christian invocation.

“Prayer at government meetings is unnecessary, inappropriate, and divisive, and the best solution is to discontinue invocations altogether. Council members are of course free to pray privately, or to worship on their own time in their own way, but they should not worship on taxpayers’ time. … It is coercive and intimidating for nonreligious citizens to be required to make a showing of their nonbelief (by not rising or praying) or else to display deference or obeisance toward a religious sentiment in which they do not believe, but which their elected officials clearly do,” the letter states.

Approximately 26 percent of Americans are not religious, Johnson said, referencing an October study by the Pew Research Center.

“In order to demonstrate the Council’s respect for the diverse range of religious and nonreligious citizens living in Wheeling, we urge you to concentrate on civil matters and leave religion to the private conscience of each individual by ending the practice of hosting prayers at your meetings,” ends the letter.

Elliott did not return calls Monday seeking comment, and the FFRF did not return calls seeking further information as to their involvement.

City Council is scheduled to meet at 5:30 p.m. today on the first floor of the City-County Building in Wheeling.


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