Written by Don Byrd
27-year-old City Commissioner Christopher Alcantara of Deltona, Florida insists that it his is right to use official government meeting time to read Scripture aloud to attendees, which include government officials and constituents. After receiving a complaint from a resident, Americans United – a longtime advocate for church-state separation – sent a letter to Alcantara arguing his practice crosses the line into improper proselytizing and is unlawful. But the young official claims he did not bother to read the entire letter, and will not stop reading Scripture at meetings.
The Daytona Beach News-Journal reports:
Alcantara told The News-Journal he isn’t trying to force religion on anyone or convert meeting attendees.
“I just like sharing words of wisdom,” Alcantara said. “I respect people of all faiths, of all walks of life. I don’t want people to think I’m some closed-minded individual just because I frequently read from the same book.”
Commissioner Anita Bradford said she’d feared Alcantara’s quoting of Scripture at nearly every commission meeting was treading on the church-state separation.
“I’m a Christian, 100 percent, but when we step into the realm of being a government official we also have to respect the laws,” Bradford said. “If I’m expecting residents and businesses to abide by rules, as a commission, we have to do the same.”
According to the article, other city officials do not believe the speaking time allotted to the commissioners was intended for religious expression, but a city attorney advised them little could be done about it because of recent rulings in this area. Considering the trajectory of the law in cases involving legislative prayer, it’s hard to argue with the attorney’s contention that the Establishment Clause has been “weakened.”
Reading Scripture at meetings poses a similar but certainly different church-state question than the historically supported practice of memorializing a meeting with an opening invocation. The Supreme Court’s most recent legislative prayer ruling, Town of Greece v. Galloway, affirmed a prayer practice but by no means said government officials have free range for unlimited religious expression. Courts continue to wrestle with how to apply that ruling to varying circumstances (the Fourth and Sixth Circuits are currently re-hearing legislative prayer cases testing the limits of Town of Greece. The Fifth Circuit recently upheld a practice allowing student-led prayer at school board meetings).
AU has not yet announced whether they plan to file a suit, but it doesn’t sound like the young commissioner in Deltona intends to budge. Stay tuned.