A question at a Fort Smith town hall meeting and court hearings in Maryland normally do not intersect, but the topic raised by Fort Smith resident David Harris at a March 4 forum following the evening's regular Board of Directors meeting could have far-reaching implications.
During the town hall meeting, where members of the Fort Smith Board of Directors and city administration take questions from city residents in a one-on-one setting, Harris alleged that requests by the Mayor for local religious leaders to offer the benediction at the start of city meetings did not include religious leaders outside of the Christian faith.
It did not take but a few seconds before Mayor Sandy Sanders interjected and emphatically told Harris, "That is absolutely not true."
"We have invited numerous (religious leaders of other faiths). So that is absolutely not true."
While Harris thanked the mayor for the clarification, the matter seemed a local question until last week when a press release from the American Humanist Association called attention to Christian prayer at public meetings and a recent court ruling that found in favor of the organization, which had sued to force Carroll County, Md., officials from invoking the name of Jesus in prayers at its public meetings.
"When government officials frequently invoke Jesus or Savior in government meetings, they exploit the legislative prayer opportunity permitted by Marsh in violation of the Constitution," said Monica Miller, attorney for the American Humanist Association's Appignani Humanist Legal Center. "Non-Christians who are necessarily excluded by such sectarian Christian prayers, feel like religious outsiders and second-class citizens in their own community."
In the ruling, U.S. Federal Judge William Quarels, Jr., of the U.S. District Court of Maryland, ruled that Carroll County, Md., officials are prohibited "from invoking the name of a specific deity associated with any specific faith or belief in prayers given at [Board] meetings" while the lawsuit is pending. The ruling from Quarels does not stop non-sectarian prayers at public meetings.
"This is a major victory for the separation of church and state," said David Niose, legal director at the Appignani Humanist Legal Center. "Invocations at public meetings must not be sectarian, and that rule was clearly broken by the county here."
Even though there has been angst by the American Humanist Association about prayers offered to Jesus, Sanders’ office provided documentation showing that the city of Fort Smith has made attempts to include other faiths in the opening prayer ritual at city Board meetings. Among the non-Christian groups to be invited, the mayor's office has reached out to the Arkansas International Buddhist Temple, Wat Budda Samakitham, Masjid Al Salam and the United Hebrew Congregation.
A brief letter dated Jan. 16 to the Arkansas International Buddhist Temple in Fort Smith explained that the Board "begins each meeting with a brief invocation, followed by the Pledge of Allegiance."
"I would like to invite you to give the invocation at one of the Board of Directors meetings during 2014, if you so desire," Sanders wrote to the temple, including instructions about how to make arrangements for a "mutually-agreeable date."
Nic Wintory, a member of the Board of Trustees at the United Hebrew Congregation, said his interactions with Sanders and former Mayor Ray Baker in the context of church and state have always been pleasant and non-exclusionary.
"Being 91 and having lived here for 75 years, I know quite a bit," he said. "I don't know that I've particularly felt slighted. And I don't know that prayer is particularly needed (at the beginning of meetings) anyway, but that's a personal position."
Many lifelong residents view public prayer at any sort of function just as Southern as fried chicken and sweet tea, and it does not appear that Wintory, himself a Southern transplant, is much different. But his personal opinion does go a bit further than that of the American Humanist Association.
"I don't know that we need some sort of benediction in order to conduct our business. But that's not the Southern way. Now these people here pray on every occasion, whether they need it or not," he said, adding that he doubts God would make many changes in the hearts of meeting participants as a result of a pre-meeting prayer.
Wintory noted that while Harris may have asked about the inclusion of non-Christian denominations, he again would not feel slighted had the invitation not come to his synagogue.
"It takes guts," he said. "There are about 25 of us (who attend the synagogue). It takes (guts) to require the city of Fort Smith to require that these 30 people be heard at every meeting. It doesn't mean a damn thing, if you know what I'm trying to say. I wish them luck, but I know a Baptist prayer is probably the best thing for these meetings. But we've always been included."
And while there may be concern among some citizens of not enough inclusion of other faiths or concern among atheist organizations about public prayer to a Christian God, Wintory said his personal faith is strong enough to not worry about any potential slights.
"At 91 and being a refugee from Nazi Germany, my Judaism is a little more set than kids from Fort Smith. I've been through the Holocaust and lived through Hitler, so I appreciate my Judiasm more than many in our congregation. But to me, this is not big thing. But it is nice to be asked even if we don't participate."