By TARA LAYNE
Goshen, Ind — A prayer given by Goshen City Councilman Chic Lantz at the start of the March 6 City Council meeting has resulted in questions being raised to the American Civil Liberties Union about the legality of the prayer.
Attorney William Wilson, who is head of the South Bend chapter of the ACLU of Indiana, said that someone in attendance at the meeting asked the ACLU to “raise the matter informally” with city officials to try to bring their practices into compliance with the law.
The prayer in question by Lantz reportedly invoked the name of Jesus Christ, which is not legal during public government meetings, according to Wilson. However, the councilman said this morning that he may have invoked the name of God, but didn’t think he used Jesus’ name in the prayer.
“The U.S. Supreme Court has said that when the government is doing something and wishes to offer some kind of prayer that it needs to be a non-sectarian prayer,” Wilson said. Basically, he said, that means the prayer needs to be generic.
“It should not invoke the name of a particular religious figure, such as Jesus, Allah or Buddah,” he said.
“It is something people who are offering these prayers need to realize, that when they are in the audience they are private citizens but when they are a member of the council and are asked to offer the prayer, that they put on the government hat,” Wilson said.
The government should not be promoting one particular religious faith, he said.
“The reason our society is so wonderfully full of people of faith is because we have that separation of church and state,” Wilson said.
According to Wilson, it is the ACLU’s hope that Goshen city attorney Larry Barkes will chat with council members to see that their future prayers are in compliance. The issue would then go away on its own, he said.
“If not, the person who complained must make the decision as to whether to file a lawsuit against the city,” Wilson said. “We would have to look at the merits of the case and determine how we should proceed.”
Right now, the U.S. Court of Appeals in Chicago is looking at the issue of prayers during legislative sessions. Wilson said he anticipates that a lawsuit against Goshen city officials would not likely be filed until a decision is made on the issue by the court.
“No one is planning to sue the city of Goshen at this point,” Wilson said.
Councilman Lantz said this morning that he was surprised to hear that his prayer had caused a problem.
“I don’t know what I said. They’re going to play the tape (of the meeting),” he said.
Lantz said he usually opens the prayer with the phrase “Dear Father God” and ends it with “The Father, Son and the Holy Spirit.” He said he doesn’t feel bad about his prayer.
“That’s how I always pray,” he said.
City Council president Everett Thomas said this morning that the issue of prayer at the council meeting was something he had raised at a City Council retreat.
He explained that the state Legislature changed the arrangement so that prayers would be offered at the back of the room before meetings are called to order. Federal Judge David Hamilton ruled that the General Assembly could not use prayers that invoked the name of Jesus Christ. That ruling is the one being appealed.
“I think this warning from the ACLU means we should take a look at that,” Thomas said.
Thomas said he was disappointed that the citizen who complained didn’t talk to the mayor or council about the issue before going straight to the ACLU.
“That doesn’t represent the small-town values I think we hold,” he said.
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