A long-time tradition of all Richmond City Commission meetings will be erased from the agenda after an Aug. 31 notice from the American Civil Liberties Union of Kentucky.

There will be no prayer given at the beginning of commission meetings, according to city manager David Evans.

He said removing the invocation from the agenda was a recommendation of Garrett Fowles, the city’s attorney.

However, a consideration for future meetings is a moment of silence, Evans said.

“There are so many people going through so many struggles now,” he said. “There’s unemployment, economic problems, war. I think we all need help from above.”

Evans and Commissioner Robert Blythe, who also is the pastor of Richmond’s First Baptist Church, Francis and Collins streets, were singled out in the letter because usually one of them is responsible for leading the invocation before each meeting.

Blythe said he never was aware of the commission being approached by anyone who was upset because of the commission’s prayer, and said that religion was a strong cornerstone in America’s development.

“This country was founded by people who wanted to acknowledge their religious beliefs,” Blythe said. “I’m very disappointed that out of all the issues this community has to deal with that someone would want to take what we really need. To suggest that the very stuff that makes us who were are needs to be gotten rid of, it’s disappointing to me. There has to be something that stabilizes us. I don’t know where we go from here.”

No one has approached the commission asking for a chance to express a different religious belief or the lack thereof, Blythe said.

“I think that technically, we could not deny them,” he said.

A copy of the ACLU’s letter was circulated Wednesday at a special-called commission meeting.

“While the ACLU of Kentucky strongly supports the rights of individuals to freely exercise their chosen religion, we also believe that government officials — when acting in their official capacities — are required to observe constitutional limitations upon their ability to engage in behavior that has the purpose or effect of endorsing religion,” the letter reads.

The first reference the organization uses to support its claim is the First Amendment that reads: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”

However, in the 1994 case of the Board of Education of Kiryas Joel Village School District v. Grumet, Supreme Court Justice David Souter stated that “... government should not prefer one religion to another, or religion to irreligion.”

“Here, the opening of Richmond City Commission meetings with sectarian prayers violates this neutrality principle by conveying an official government endorsement of the particular religious viewpoint expressed by the government speaker; in this case, Christianity,” the letter reads.

The ACLU refers to the commission’s action as “legislative prayer.”

“... in order to satisfy constitutional scrutiny under the establishment clause, pre-session prayers (such as those here) must be considered governmental speech, not individual speech, to qualify as a ‘legislative prayer.’”

The organization calls the commission’s prayer “governmental speech” based on four reasons: The prayer is occurring at the commission’s meetings; it occurs after the meeting is called to order and is routinely on the agenda; there is control over the prayer because it is given by a commission member; and the commissioners sponsor the speech and are therefore responsible as a whole.

“For the foregoing reasons, we respectfully request that the practice of opening Richmond City Commission meetings with sectarian prayers cease,” the letter reads.

Ronica Shannon can be reached at rshannon@richmondregister.com or 624-6608.

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