GT County Commission begins controversial prayer policy

Feb 7, 2019

 

The Grand Traverse County Commissioners listen to public comment at their meeting on Feb. 7th.
Credit Taylor Wizner

After passing a much debated prayer policy, the Grand Traverse County Commission started its first meeting of February with an invocation. 

 

On Wednesday morning, a room of about fifty people quiets down as Chair Rob Hentschel calls the meeting to order. This week it is Hentschel’s turn to start the invocation. He hands over his time to local Pastor Brian Conover.

“We begin our prayer father thanking you for your goodness, your grace and your blessing,” he says. “There are things about our area that we did not create but were here when we showed up, and we’re grateful to enjoy them.”

Prayers like this could happen at each County Commission meeting. Board members decide if they want to pray or nominate someone else to do it. If a community member wants to give an invocation, they have to email the commissioners. Only one prayer is given per meeting, but Hentschel says there are no restrictions on who can speak or what they say.

“We ask that their not proselytizing or degrading another faith,” he says. “But other than that it’s pretty wide open.”

Hentschel says this policy shouldn’t be controversial because no one is forced to participate.

“I understand some people aren’t going to find value in it,” Hentschel says. “There’s lots of things that go on that I don’t find value in. It’s not for everyone, maybe.”

Commissioners like Betsy Coffia, who oppose the policy, could take a different tact.

“I am not comfortable in inviting invocation because I am concerned about opening us up to liability,” Coffia says. “So my intention is simply to hold that spot and ask us to move on with the meeting.”

In 2014, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that religious prayer at government meetings is allowed as long as non-believers aren’t shamed or coerced into participating. But some experts say determining that is a bit tricky. 

Frank Ravitch is a religious law professor at Michigan State University. He says people in Grand Traverse County may feel pressured to pray.

“Having the commissioner do the prayer might create more of an issue for those who are coming before the commission for business,” Ravitch says. “You know zoning or housing or whatever. They may feel more of a duty to not walk out, or to not come late, or whatever the case may be.”

Ravitch says there is also a chance members of the public will feel they are being discriminated against. He says if someone asks commissioners to give a prayer and they are not chosen, that could open the county up to a lawsuit.

“When citizens volunteer, the policy is pretty clear that they could be denied,” Ravitch says. “Could it be because they want to make a statement that is viewed as being atheist or as being somehow non-religious?” 

Ravitch says other communities that introduced similar policies have been sued and racked up millions of dollars in legal fees. He says they’ve also lost businesses and faced public blowback.

“If really what they care about is solemnizing the event, and people having a moment to really reflect and come together … a moment of silence serves that purpose with no legal risk,” Ravitch says.

Barb Willing supports the invocation. She says it brings levity to the start of the meetings.

“I’m sitting there and [the minister] is praying for all of our firemen, and our police and our deputies,” Willing says. “You know it was inspirational. What a great way to start a meeting.” 

Because different commissioners choose what invocation will be read at each meeting, the next one could be different. There could be a humanist invocation, a Buddhist prayer or there could be no words spoken at all.