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Rapid City Council Faces Objection to Establishing Christianity as City Religion

Last updated on 2014.05.06

The Rapid City City Council is catching heck for starting its meetings with Christian prayers. Following a complaint from a local citizen, the Freedom from Religion Foundation sent Mayor Sam Kooiker and the city council members a letter urging them to knock off the exclusive, anti-First Amendment amens from the public dais. (In the Unwanted Autocorrect department, FFR's computer apparently couldn't believe anyone would be named Kooiker and replaced his name in the greeting with "Walker".)

Local pastors are up in arms. Dale Bartscher says "Our nation was built upon Judeo-Christian values." Our nation was also built on slavery, but you can't open a city council meeting with, "Hey, Negro, fetch me a mint julep."

City council member and arch-right-wing "family-values" campaigner Steve Laurenti said the city isn't making any law to establish religion; the council is just exercising its freedom of speech... just as I would be exercising my freedom of speech if I opened every French class by asking my public high school students to stand and join me in declaring that there is no God so we'd better quit praying and start studying, right? But then Laurenti and the Rapid City Legal and Finance committee told city attorney Joel Landeen to draft a policy (that's kind of like a law, right?) establishing the city council prayer practices. Uh oh.

The Freedom from Religion Foundation says in its January 7 letter that saying the city prays in Jesus's name and that there is only one true god is "unnecessary, inappropriate, and divisive." If I attend a Rapid City City Council meeting, I can plug my ears and stay seated through the council's public display of piety, but why should I let any elected official use his or her official position to denigrate on the record any of my fellow citizens' religious or non-religious beliefs?

The FFR says it best:

Local government should not be in the business of performing religious rituals, or exhorting all citizens, regardless of beliefs, to participate in a Christian prayer, or even asking citizens to show deference or obeisance to this ritual [Patrick C. Elliott, staff attorney, Freedom from Religion Foundation, letter to Mayor Sam Kooiker and Rapid City City Council, 2013.01.07].

Save the revival meetings for Sunday, Rapid City City Council. When the meeting starts, get to work.


  1. D 2013.01.31

    The council hasn't offended any federal or Constitutional prohibition by engaging in a voluntary prayer. No participant is required to participate nor does this "establish Christianity as the city religion." Our Constitutional protections ensure the free practice of religion and protect agains compulsion but do not insulate from free exercise activities in public forums. There is no denigration by the council but, as a parting shot: Under God, the People Rule.

  2. larry kurtz 2013.01.31

    Surprises me that the dissenters aren't taken out to the street and summarily shot, hauled to the landfill then over-billed to the city.

  3. larry kurtz 2013.01.31

    a mention of god might be acceptable but reference to our lord or jesus or christ should be verboten.

  4. larry kurtz 2013.01.31

    god could be anything: weed, whites, wine even an boot on a fence post in a ditch.

  5. larry kurtz 2013.01.31

    but mentioning some dead jew who purportedly lived a couple of thousand years ago then turned into god by the holy roman kiddie diddlers? that's just crazed.

  6. larry kurtz 2013.01.31

    rapid city should pass a resolution making the AR-15 god.

  7. PNR 2013.01.31

    I've done those civic prayers - not for the city council, but as a chaplain (Navy). It is appropriate to respect the fact that not everybody at such a public, civic meeting is Christian (or Jewish or Muslim or...). There are several ways to do it.
    1) Make sure the invitation is not restricted to only one religion. If there's a rabbi, an imam, or even an atheist who wants to read a bit of Robert Frost or Maya Angelou, make it available to them, too on the same basis;
    2) Avoid explicitly sectarian practices that exclude - for Christians, use "Lord" instead of Jesus as it allows those who have a different lord to mentally substitute that. Even though everyone there will know you're a Christian and who you mean, it doesn't bind them to your meaning. For other religions that will mean you give up some other exclusionary practice;
    3) Pray, don't preach - you can preach on your own time.

    And don't give me the old "christian nation" stuff. I know that history, too. I'm no fan of the Supreme Court decisions since '47 that have tried to drive a wedge between church and state that is not called for in the Constitution, but by including that first amendment, it's clear the authors sought to avoid the religious dissension that had torn Europe apart from 1517-1620 by rendering the national government neutral on the question.

    As a Christian pastor, I'm OK with that. The state isn't my church and vice versa.

  8. Douglas Wiken 2013.01.31

    Larry, hard to get a response?

    I wonder what the support for free speech in the council would be if the prayer were objected to? Should a prayer be in the form of a motion?

  9. larry kurtz 2013.01.31

    she's a fold, a lift lubricated with fossil water brought from the depths of a five and half billion year old womb...and raped like a two bit whore every day.

  10. Donald Pay 2013.01.31

    I attended numerous RC Common Council meetings as a reporter and as a citizen. I am interested in religion from a sociological/sociobiological/historical perspective, but am not someone who adheres to any specific religious belief. I never was offended by the invocations, though I thought some of them crossed the line into preaching. I thought it was borderline unconstitutional, but not willing to stick my neck out to complain. The RC school board recited the Pledge of Allegiance. I recited the original Pledge, leaving out the "under God," out of respect for the constitution.

  11. KatiJenkins 2013.01.31

    Sheesh! Is this the "Larry Kurtz Show" on Madville Times?
    Let the "Pledge of Allegiance" suffice at the meetings. Enough already. Let's get on with business with city matters, dust the prayer issues, not just Rapid City , but in all of our South Dakota city councils. We are supposed to be getting down to business, are we not, as concerned South Dakota citizens, in all of our communities - large or small - I would hope that the voice of South Dakota folks are heard.

  12. grudznick 2013.01.31

    Kurtz and I are having lunch tomorrow.

  13. Bill Dithmer 2013.01.31

    This has nothing to do with the RC council meetings I just want to know.

    If you are watching church on Sunday morning and it is tape delayed two hours, are the prayers delayed or do they start with the original utterance?

    I'm just wondering how many times I was off two hours in my youth. Maybe that's my problem. By the time I wanted to talk to who ever was in charge, he she or it had moved on to other things.

    The Blindman

  14. caheidelberger Post author | 2013.02.01

    Think of the Bible as 2000-year tape delay, Bill. Still not a bad book... but still not something we should be entering in the official city council minutes.

    PNR, I appreciate your willingness to show some restraint in those civic prayers. "Pray, don't preach"—done right, that simple guidance could keep officials from treading into territory the excludes citizens. All citizens must feel welcome.

  15. Dylan 2013.02.01

    Just to throw this out there, even if this isn't an explicit breach of SCOTUS rulings such as those in Engel v. Vitale (1962), those rulings could still, very easily be applied to this instance.

    One would simply have to contend, and rightly so, that prayer on official gov't time is the equivalent of establishing religious belief. Even if it is optional in participation, or non-denominational, you still have the effect of alienating non-theists.

    As far as the freedom of expression/speech argument: anyone who has even the most rudimentary understanding of the functionality of the Bill of Rights knows that there are no absolute rights. Heck, I'd be more prone to argue that this prayer, occurring in official capacity, stifles others ability to express themselves as non-religious individuals. It's what's known as the chilling effect.

  16. Douglas Wiken 2013.02.01

    Rapid City Journal has a story about local ministers objecting to the objections concerning the prayer at council meetings. That endorsement of the prayers is ironically the best argument against having the prayers.

    Guess the ministers missed the Bible on praying in a closet.

  17. Dougal 2013.02.02

    Another holy roller politico fake bites the dust. This time, the GOP favorite for Governor in Nebraska, Lt. Gov. Rick Sheehy. Link:

    "The World-Herald said in its online additions Saturday that it discovered Sheehy made thousands of late-night calls to the women on his state-issued cellphone. Sheehy, a Republican, had been considered the front-runner in the 2014 gubernatorial race and had been endorsed by Heineman. Sheehy has been traveling throughout the state, making speeches and holding public events."

    I love it when these phonies get hung to dry on their own petards.

  18. duggersd 2013.02.02

    The pertinent portion of the First Amendment reads: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof;". There is nothing in there that says anything about states or towns establishing a religion, so does SCOTUS even have authority in this area? I suggest not, even though SCOTUS has made it part of their business.

  19. caheidelberger Post author | 2013.02.02

    Dugger, do you content that local governments can establish a religion? If local governments were free to do so, would not have some religious town have figured that out by now?

  20. duggersd 2013.02.02

    If you read the First Amendment, it only talks about Congress. Now the state may have a restriction as well, but it is a state issue, not a federal one according to the amendment. So if a town council chooses to have a prayer, the feds have no say in the matter. That is not to say that the feds have not overstepped their boundaries. But if you look at the Tenth Amendment, you will see that is happening all of the time.

  21. caheidelberger Post author | 2013.02.03

    So the next question, Dugger, is should local governments establish a religion? Or should we agree that, on this important issue of democratic inclusivity, what's good for the Congressional goose is at least as good for the local gander?

  22. duggersd 2013.02.03

    What we should agree upon is it is not a Congressional issue. I contend saying a prayer is not establishing a religion. If it were, Congress would be in violation.

  23. caheidelberger Post author | 2013.02.03

    If it's not a prayer the whole nation or the whole community can share, then it shouldn't be done on public time, should it? I think there's a unifying principle here that could apply equally to Congress and the city council.

  24. Bill Dithmer 2013.02.04

    "If you read the First Amendment, it only talks about Congress. Now the state may have a restriction as well, but it is a state issue, not a federal one according to the amendment. So if a town council chooses to have a prayer, the feds have no say in the matter. "

    I love it. Are we talking about prayer or pot? I guess it only matters when its your ox that's being gored.

    "COME ON DEADWOOD" people pray better at the machines and the tables when they have access to good weed. I'd even live there if I didn't have to break the law to get medicinal marijuana.

    Talk about spawning a new industry. Maybe they could even get a good grocery store to come to town.


    That's right, people will play slower but laugh louder and stay longer. It would even make losing a good experience guaranteeing that even the losers would come back. Well isn't that what the rest of us in the state want, higher continued revenue?

    Drugs, gambling, prayer,sex, it really doesn't matter which one you are addicted to. Does it?

    We can fix what's broken at THE CHURCH OF BILL just send us the money you would normally spend someplace else and "problem solved."

    THE CHURCH OF BILL, the for profit church selling solutions to everyday problems. Just remember, a dollar doesn't go as far as it used to, so dig deep.08+1

    Never mind, I'm still pissed because the Broncos didn't win the Super Bowl. Didn't make it to the Super Bowl. Damn donkeys.

    The Blindman

  25. duggersd 2013.02.04

    We are talking about the First Amendment. There is no mention in that of pot. If a prayer is offered, Cory, you can pray along or ignore. Nobody is forcing you. A prayer in and of itself does not establish a religion.

  26. larry kurtz 2013.02.04

    Thomas Jefferson smoked hashish and opium while living in France.

  27. larry kurtz 2013.02.04

    ...and while he thought jesus was a cool guy Jefferson thought the idea of (H)is divinity was poppycock.

  28. caheidelberger Post author | 2013.02.04

    And Dugger, if I stand at the front of the classroom, declare there is no God, and exhort my students to stop praying for divine intervention and do their earthly best, do you advise my students to simply pray along or ignore?

  29. grudznick 2013.02.04

    You should do that Mr. H, and those very young people will listen to you. Mold their minds.

  30. larry kurtz 2013.02.04

    Off the clock from that Laucklock, grudz?

  31. duggersd 2013.02.05

    Cory, if you do that in your class and I have a child in that class, I will pull my child. Let's see how long you last. I am very careful about expressing my opinions in class. Your job is to teach French. I teach Spanish. I do not see anything that says my job is to teach religion. I suggest you just do your job.

  32. caheidelberger Post author | 2013.02.05

    Right. So why are city council members any different? I don't see anything that says their job is to teach religion.

  33. duggersd 2013.02.05

    So vote them out if you don't like it. That is what I do when I do not like what my city council is doing. And isn't THAT democracy in action?

  34. caheidelberger Post author | 2013.02.05

    Wait: so what if my school board doesn't vote me out? What if I luck out and have a bunch of pagan Dems on my school board who countenance my abuse of the First Amendment and my public podium?

  35. Bill Dithmer 2013.02.05

    Holy proctoly Cory a French speaking, progressive, pagan teaching his views on everything in the class room. What next wine and cheese? J'aime le vin. Can I set in for the day?

    Le Blindman a un verre vide

  36. duggersd 2013.02.05

    If a school board is so foolish or weak as to keep you after pulling a stunt like that, then yes. Go ahead and try it. There really is no point in continuing this. I stated the issue was not one addressed by the Constitution. You seem to agree. State constitutions may or may not address this. Offering a prayer is not establishing a religion. Have a good one.

  37. larry kurtz 2013.02.05

    'In God we trust' wasn't added to coinage until 1864 and not adopted as a slur to the Constitution until 1956. Just more jingoism likely intended as reactions to Sibby's Masons.

    Jefferson saw the Creator as a clock-maker, a plate-spinner that invented the laws of motion then walked away.

    What's so sad is that people like duggie Barnes are taken seriously such that South Dakota doesn't even see itself as conservative any longer.

    Shaka, when the walls fell.

  38. caheidelberger Post author | 2013.02.05

    Doug, you disappoint me. I'm trying to put the the issue in a different perspective. Your position seems to boil down to, "I say majority rules, since I'm in the majority. Since Cory's talking about a minority position, I don't have to worry about it, since my fellow majority members would never let him do what we want to allow ourselves to do."

    Seriously: why are you not willing to ignore my opening class with an atheist "prayer" but happily encourage me to ignore a Christian prayer at the beginning of some other public government meeting?

  39. caheidelberger Post author | 2013.02.05

    Bill, your verre won't get very plein with vin in my classroom. Your cup will runneth over, however, with grammar and conversation.

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