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Reverend ‘Concerned’ Over Wheeling Prayer Response

WHEELING — In response to a letter from a religious freedom organization, Wheeling City Council will shift to secular prayers before opening meetings, but at least one faith leader is not happy with the decision.

The Rev. Darrell Cummings, pastor of the Bethlehem Apostolic Temple, said he has been invited to offer an invocation at the state Senate next month, and “if it’s good enough for the state, it’s good for the city.”

“I definitely think we need more prayer,” Cummings said. “Can we pray outside of council? We definitely can and definitely will. I’m of the generation that grew up with prayer in school, and they were successful in taking prayer out of the schools. … I think we now have more violence in school, and more challenges, since we took prayer out. If a pattern is any way to judge how things are, the pattern does not look good for taking (religious prayer) out.”

Cummings added that while not everyone believes in Christianity, he feels that the community is based on it.

“I believe in the power of prayer, that our country, our state, our city was built on believing in God, but I also believe that people have the right not to believe in God. That’s what makes America, America, is that we do have a choice. … If nothing else, (prayer) teaches us what each others’ goals are. For two minutes, a person may not believe in prayer, but for those two minutes, I’ll put up with what you believe in, and we’ll be able to sit together. But for some reason to say I can’t have those two minutes (of prayer), it spills into other areas.”

Cummings acknowledged that his opinions were his own, and did not necessarily reflect those of his church or congregation.

Earlier this month, attorney Brenda Johnson, on behalf of the Wisconsin-based Freedom From Religion Foundation sent a letter to Mayor Glenn Elliott and council, asking the city to discontinue opening meetings with prayer, which were determined to be Christian in nature and which, Johnson wrote, risked elevating and promoting one faith above others, a violation of the First Amendment.

At Tuesday’s council meeting, Councilman Ken Imer read a secular reflection before being the meeting was called to order, which drew vocal objections from one member of the audience.

After the meeting, Imer said he felt that the church should remain religious in nature, but saw the benefit of remaining more humanist in nature.

“The letter was provided to us, saying we should stay sort of neutral, … more inclusive,” Imer said. “I agree that God is not the only god, but we’re based on God, but we’re trying to be open-minded but I also feel that God should be a part of the prayer.”

Mayor Glenn Elliott, after the meeting, described the secular prayer as a compromise which found a sweet spot.

“The compromise we worked out (Tuesday night) is something we worked out with our city solicitor, and she believes it falls well within the confines of First Amendment case law. … We took it very seriously. What was said (at the meeting) was said before the call to order … and we don’t call to order until after that’s said. It’s a safe spot within First Amendment law, and … I believe we can move forward as we have been for many, many years, just with a slight modification.”

He said they looked through a series of secular prayers that do not specifically endorse any religion and are used before events across the country.

“We still want to have some form of reflection, but not run afoul of any First Amendment case law,” Elliott said. “From what I understand, the letter is based on some pretty solid case law, … and I think we’ve been very careful, going forward and (Tuesday), that what we’re doing will not promote any particular religion, and be respectful to believers and non-believers alike.”

Resident Josh Riffle, who had objected to Imer’s reading of the reflection, spoke during public comment period to criticize the city’s habit of opening meetings with prayer, as he has on several occasions in the past.

“All you know about me is that I have a problem with someone on my city council leading a prayer that has no business being in this building to begin with. If you want to pray, go to church,” “This is a house of community, which doesn’t mean only Christian people, or Hindu people — what if you all were the only Muslims in the whole city, but you all weaseled your way into power, and you lead (Islamic) prayer that we all had to sit through? Would you like that? Probably not.”

Riffle also spoke at public comment to complain that the three minutes the council allocates to those who sign up to speak is illegal, condemning the police who observe the proceedings as being complicit in enforcing illegal laws. After his time was up, Riffle continued to speak, until Elliott advised him that he was out of order. Riffle said aloud that he left the building of his own accord, while escorted by officers.

Wheeling resident Karen Berger also addressed council to speak on several topics, one of which was the topic of prayer, saying that she did not see a problem with it. Berger’s comments came after she spent much of her speaking period condemning the city’s recent discussion between community leaders in the black and Jewish communities on the discrimination the people of those backgrounds face.

“I went online and found some information on the group that’s trying to get you to stop doing the prayer. The woman (Johnson) is a radical. … She is Jewish. I just want you to know, I think the prayer is fine. … If you see reverse discrimination, make sure you watch for it and call them out. I’m not a bigot. … I hope you do keep the prayer, because I don’t find it offensive and I think 95 percent of people wouldn’t find it offensive.”

The secular prayer read by Ken Imer before Tuesday’s meeting of Wheeling City Council:

As we gather here today as members of City Council, we pray that we are ever mindful of opportunities to render our service to fellow citizens and to our community. Keeping in mind always the enduring values of life, applying our efforts in those areas and on those things upon which future generations can build with confidence, let us continue to strive to make a better world.

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