Prayers offered at Monroeville council meeting, but not by mayor or council members
Monroeville’s mayor broke custom Thursday and did not offer the Lord’s Prayer during its council meeting.
But two residents, upset that the municipality is under threat of a lawsuit from the American Civil Liberties Union for use of the Christian prayer, said aloud their own prayers during the meeting’s public-comment session.
“Faith is important in this community,” said the Rev. Rob Marrow, pastor of Crossroads Presbyterian Church in Monroeville, whose prayer invoked Jesus. “I hope you keep a time of prayer in the meeting, whatever that may be.”
The civil liberties group thinks the Monroeville case is open and shut.
“You have the mayor standing up and saying the same sectarian prayer at every meeting,” said Vic Walczak, legal director of the ACLU of Pennsylvania.
“When government picks one faith over another, it’s defining who are insiders and who are outsiders. Religion is so important to some people that they want to foist it on others,” he said.
The prayer has been said at council meetings for at least 14 years. Thursday’s agenda did not list the Lord’s Prayer, as did an earlier online version.
“We are not going to have a prayer tonight,” Monroeville Mayor Greg Erosenko, announced at the meeting. “We are reviewing use of the prayer with legal counsel.”
Residents there struck a defiant tone.
“We were settled as a Christian nation. They really should be adopting our lifestyle,” resident Helen Crowell said of challengers to use of the Christian prayer at meetings.
Monroeville is home to many non-Christian houses of worship, including several synagogues, the Hindu Jain Temple of Pittsburgh, the Muslim Community Center of Greater Pittsburgh and the Pittsburgh Sikh Gurdwara. Construction of a mosque was approved in August.
Some constitutional experts are not as certain as Walczak about whether saying the Lord’s Prayer violates separation of church and state.
Last year, the Supreme Court upheld a New York town’s practice of starting meetings with a prayer. However, Greece, N.Y., allowed a variety of religious voices, including a Wiccan priestess, to offer invocations.
Arthur Hellman, a law professor at the University of Pittsburgh, said the Monroe-ville case is not clear, constitutionally.
“This is closer to the line than the New York case, but I don’t think anyone can say it’s over the line. That’s what courts are for,” he said.
Bruce Ledewitz, a Duquesne University law professor, said courts could go either way.
“If it’s considered his own speech, it is constitutional. If it’s construed as part of the meeting, the prayer is probably not constitutional,” he said.
The Supreme Court has upheld legislative prayer, but has prohibited, as coerced, prayer at public high school graduations.
Sara Rose, staff attorney with the ACLU’s Pittsburgh office, said the ACLU wrote the council asking it to stop saying the Lord’s Prayer at meetings.
“If they agree to do that, then it’s resolved, and if they don’t, then we will consider filing a lawsuit in federal court,” Rose said.
Monroeville solicitor Bruce Dice has said the Greece, N.Y., ruling allows the use of the Lord’s Prayer and spiritual words.
Rick Wills is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Reach him at 412-320-7944 or at [email protected].