City backtracks, reinstates prayer before meetings

Published 12:00 am Friday, June 13, 2003

City of Vicksburg special projects coordinator Patty Mekus speaks on the phone Thursday to a caller concerned about a city decision to replace formal prayer with a moment of silence at city board meetings. She also was talking to Mayor Laurence Leyens on the phone in her left hand.(C. Todd Sherman The Vicksburg Post)

[06/13/03]Folding to public pressure, the mayor and aldermen announced Thursday they will resume the tradition of opening city board meetings with a prayer even if it violates constitutional law.

City officials released a statement after being inundated with phone calls over a decision to stop prayers before the televised public meetings. In that statement, the mayor and aldermen said they will continue to seek volunteers to pray as a tradition and part of the fabric of society.

Email newsletter signup

Sign up for The Vicksburg Post's free newsletters

Check which newsletters you would like to receive
  • Vicksburg News: Sent daily at 5 am
  • Vicksburg Sports: Sent daily at 10 am
  • Vicksburg Living: Sent on 15th of each month

“Anybody can volunteer to pray, and they can pray any way they want to,” Mayor Laurence Leyens said.

After receiving a letter from a local physician complaining about the prayers offered on the city-sponsored cable television channel, board members agreed Tuesday to start board meetings with a moment of silence. Officials expressed concerns over possible litigation with the ACLU and violating constitutional law.

The letter written by Dr. Sloane R. Blair refers to the First Amendment to the Constitution, which guarantees the separation of church and state. Blair, who said in the letter that she objects to the prayers, could not be reached for comment.

“It was a tradition and it’s never been an issue before so we’re going to go forward,” said North Ward Alderman Gertrude Young.

City Attorney Nancy Thomas had said that based on her research, to avoid any constitutional issues the invocation given before the board meeting should have no reference to any specific religion. Young, an ordained Baptist minister, and South Ward Alderman Sid Beauman, a member of the Church of Christ, said they were opposed to leaving Jesus out of the prayers.

Leyens, who is Jewish, said he did not have an issue with the prayers given before and that the city will deal with a lawsuit if one is filed.

“My job is to run the City of Vicksburg, and I don’t want anything to throw us off track,” Leyens said Thursday.

After the board’s announcement Tuesday to stop praying before the meeting, calls began coming into the Mayor’s Office in support of the prayers. Patty Mekus in Leyens’ office said 15 calls were received in two hours.

Mekus said that many people were angry about Blair’s letter. She said that all those who called asked that the board continue the prayers.

Prayers are given before the start of meetings of the Warren County Board of Supervisors, the Legislature and Congress. Those prayers given at local public meetings are also aired on the city’s TV23.