Prayer decision has Portales officials concerned about other areas

The controversial exclusion of coach-led prayer in Portales city league sports has sparked questions about prayer at other public and government-funded venues.

According to league sorts Director Mike Doerr, coach-led prayer was eliminated to avoid possible legal issues as well as respecting the diversity represented in the league.

The city council pauses for an invocation prayer before the start of their meetings. Mayor Sharon King said although it hasn't been discussed with other councilors, she's questioned if the council would still allowed to do so in light of the coach-led prayer issue.

"It's been going on for so long," King said about prayer. She said she asked City Manager Tom Howell about it and she said he told her they have been praying because nobody has challenged it.

King said the council will continue to pray until someone challenges it but she knows if they're required to stop, it may not be well-received.

She said the invocation prayer usually involves praying for safety and wisdom in decision making and is never discriminatory or excluding other religions.

New Mexico Attorney General spokesman Phil Cisneros said he wouldn't offer an opinion on the issue unless it actually happened.

"By the Constitution, the attorney general is charged with enforcing state law, in this case I don't know what the statute is," said Cisneros regarding a state statute about the separation of church and state.

Sue Strickler, professor of political science at Eastern New Mexico University, said there is a strong religious Christian community in the area and though they are the majority, the U.S. Constitution establishes rights for all.

"(Eliminating coach-led prayer) is actually protective of religious rights and religious diversity," Strickler said. "Majority rights, with the protection of the minority rights, is a general notion in philosophy and law."

Strickler said any authority figure leading prayer in a setting where children are involved becomes unacceptable.

City Councilor Michael Lucero said he is a firm believer in God and doesn't see any harm in praying prior to meetings.

"In my opinion it helps us," Lucero said. "I don't believe in excluding other religions. I respect everyone's beliefs, as long as it's benefiting your fellow man."

David Vanwettering, director of instruction for Portales Municipal Schools, said they follow state and federal laws regarding the separation of church and state.

He said though he hasn't seen any specific issues with religion in the past 23 years he's been with the school system, if he did, the issue would have to pass the Lemon test.

According to the city's attorney Randy Knudson, under the Lemon test, a challenged governmental act complies with the Constitution's Establishment Clause if it:

  • Has a secular purpose.
  • Has a primary effect that neither inhibits nor advances religion.
  • The act does not create an excessive entanglement between government and religion.

"Bible scriptures on banners could be offensive to some people but most people would love it, but if somebody complained, you'd have to help protect their rights," Vanwettering said, referring to a recent issue in a Texas school district.

Micah McCoy, ACLU of New Mexico communications manager, said legislative prayer is constitutional depending on how its conducted.

"Elected leaders should consider whether it is respectful to open legislative sessions that affect all residents with a form of religious prayer practiced by only some residents," McCoy said. "Every person should have full confidence that their government will deal fairly with them, regardless of what they do or do not believe."

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