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County changes meeting prayers

Mike Heine/The Week

(Published Oct. 2, 2007, 3:48 p.m.)

If you're thinking of skipping church on Sunday because you attended a Walworth County Board meeting and heard a prayer there, forget it.

References to religious figurehead are out and so are official church members giving a prayer at the start of monthly meetings, the executive committee decided last week.

Supervisor Allan Polyock, of Zenda, had requested eliminating the meeting-opening invocation altogether, feeling it violated county ordinances.

Polyock said he had no problem with references to God, because God is not specific to any religion.

But references to Christianity's Jesus Christ and other religious figures should be left out, he said.

The courts have allowed prayer at government meetings and the guidelines that developed afterward ask not to advocate a particular faith, County Administrator David Bretl said.

"That translated through the years not to invoke specific religious figures," Bretl said at a meeting earlier. "I think 'God' is probably an acceptable word to say. 'Jesus Christ' is probably not, or 'Buddha' or 'Muhammad.'"

Prayers at board meetings started in 1999. The practice across the state is mixed, with a minority of counties having prayer, Bretl said. Other counties have a moment of silence for personal prayer or reflection.

Polyock asked the invocation be replaced the moment of silence.

"Prayer cannot invoke a specific religious figure," Polyock wrote in a letter to the board asking for the change. "Ours almost always do. We have a duty to follow the law. It is not fair for us to ask a minister to make a 'generic' prayer."

The board has made it a point to keep religious figures out of the invocations since Polyock made the suggestion earlier this summer. Supervisors were designated to conduct the invocation, a practice that will become official.

Also, priests, ministers, deacons and others affiliated with a specific church will not be asked to lead the prayer, said Supervisor David Weber said, executive committee chairman. 

The executive committee last week tabled Polyock's request for an outright removal of the invocation from county ordinances and agreed to have supervisors continue coming up with the more basic invocations. Moments of silence can be requested and members of the board or public can leave the room during the invocation if they choose.


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