Written by Don Byrd

A complaint filed in federal court this week claims that the practice of the Parkersburg City Council in West Virginia in beginning its meetings with Christian prayer, specifically with recitations of the Lord’s Prayer, violates religious freedom guarantees under the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Parkersburg Mayor Tom Joyce argues the prayers are delivered prior to the official start of each meeting, and “no one is invited to rise and join in,” according to the Parkersburg News and Sentinel report. But the plaintiffs maintain that “a seat of government [is not permitted] to wrap itself in a single faith.”

The plaintiffs also claim that the council’s practice has amounted to improper coercion at times. Here is an excerpt from the complaint addressing that issue:

47. The City Council President often motions for City Council members and meeting attendees to stand and participate in the prayer.
48. For example, on June 26, 2018, the City Council President John Reed initiated the Lord’s Prayer by announcing “All right” as he stood, then looked out at the audience as he motioned with both arms to stand for the prayer. After this direction, many meeting attendees stood and joined the Council in reciting the Lord’s Prayer. A video of the incident is available here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UfWOu84eGdE&t (accessed July 17, 2018).
49. Many public attendees of City Council meetings join in reciting the Lord’s Prayer at each meeting.
50. Persons who are not standing or reciting the Lord’s Prayer therefore are conspicuous by not participating.
51. Persons who have refused to stand or recite the Lord’s Prayer at City Council meetings have been confronted by city officials.
52. For example, on September 12, 2017, City Councilman Eric Barber stared at attendees who sat during the Lord’s Prayer. At the conclusion of the prayer, Councilman Barber moved to position himself near his microphone, pressed a button on his microphone, and shouted “Amen.” A video of the incident is available here:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fj56LyrgLQ0 (accessed July 17, 2018).

According to the Parkersburg News and Sentinel, City Council President John Reed vows to continue the practice until he is ordered by a court to stop.

Parkersburg’s WTAP News coverage reports on the prayer practices of other cities in West Virginia.