Prayer policy continues to confuse county commissioners, public

Feb 21, 2019

Grand Traverse County Commissioners listen to public speakers during the Feb. 6 board meeting.
Credit Taylor Wizner

The Grand Traverse County Board of Commissioners meeting was nearly cancelled yesterday because they couldn’t decide on whether to hear an agenda item on the new prayer policy.

Commissioner Betsy Coffia wanted the board to clarify the policy for her and the public. Other commissioners said the policy was clearly spelled out and any more discussion would be a waste of their time.

Ultimately, the board was split on the vote and couldn’t break the tie.

The meeting eventually moved forward when Coffia agreed to bring up her issue near the end of the meeting.

Coffia, who is against the policy in general, says it should be clear why people are accepted or denied a prayer request.

She says if commissioners do not respond to those requests, people may assume they are being discriminated against.

“I just had a woman who’s a Wiccan today and email me to offer to give an invocation,” Coffia says. “I’m going to refer her to my colleagues who support religious invocations at public meetings. And I believe it’s disrespectful to ignore those and give them no answer.”

Since passing the invocation policy, commissioners say they have been flooded with requests to lead the meeting prayer.

The Board’s legal counsel Kit Tholen says there’s no law requiring them to respond. Tholen brought up recent court decisions where the right to give a prayer at the meeting was upheld.

“It’s something that’s foundational in our country and is not subjected to the same tests or scrutiny that most other behavior by government is,” Tholen says.

He says as long as any invocation given at a meeting doesn’t exclude another religion, the county should be on good legal footing.

But Coffia says that conflicts with another court decision from last year, in which a county had to pay hundreds of thousands of dollars for only having Christian prayers at their public meetings.

Wednesday’s meeting ended without any changes to the policy. Grand Traverse County residents can still ask the commissioners if they can give an invocation.