Should public prayer be promoted by local governments? This might be the newest debate animating Miami-Dade County and its dozens of cities and towns as a South Florida group tries to lobby for more religious activities within town halls.
On Friday, Mission Miami, a Christian organization uniting hundreds of pastors and affiliated with the national Mission America, sponsored several public praying sessions in local government offices from Homestead to Miami Gardens. At 11:00 a.m., Bishops throughout the County publicly prayed to support cities within town halls, while public officials were at work.
Bishop Billy Baskin of the New Way Fellowship Church was present at the Miami Gardens City Hall. The pastor had received authorization from the City Council, after the latter was lobbied by Mayor Gilbert, to conduct the activity, causing some local discomfort.
The issue of public prayer has been a troubling one for years. It is clear that prayer within a private property is rightfully allowed by the First Amendment. But as the latter also promotes a Separation of Church and State, where the line should be drawn between the two is at issue.
But allowing prayer within a town hall does not promote any religion. It allows one to manifest itself, yet without forbidding other religions. "It is part of the freedom of expression," says Miami Gardens Councilman Erhabor Ighodaro. "It was not an exclusionary initiative." According to Ighodaro, the City Council would also allow Jewish or Muslim public ceremonies to be held at the city hall if religious groups requested it.
The problem is more in the details, however. At 11:00 a.m., city employees are already at work and some members of the community believe holding a religious ceremony within the facility at this time would distract workers or prevent their focus.
If this is the real problem (not according to the City Council), it is not a religion-related issue. But the ACLU still protested, issuing the following statement: "In general, the Greater Miami chapter of the ACLU believe that city time should be invested in city business and that cities should stay out of religion."
While the American Civil Liberties Union has been doing a great job at protecting individual rights throughout the years, it has confused itself in the issue of religion. Public prayer is simply the free expression of thoughts and beliefs, as the Constitution protects it, within government property. There is no theoretical difference between praying at a town hall and praying in the street.
In Miami Gardens, no individual was forced to pray. No elected official used his or her power to promote the religion. In fact, only the Mayor was present at the ceremony, as a private individual. Attending the ceremony, according to city officials, were people on lunch breaks, not officially at work, and those working were ordered to remain in their offices. "There was no overlap," says Ighodaro.
In other words, no public funds were used to pay for the ceremony, and no worker wasted time away from duty. There was no prohibition of other religions, which are still invited in Miami Gardens to perform similar rituals, at the discomfort of Vice-Mayor Lisa Davis. At the end of the day, Mission Miami held a public ceremony in a public area, without disrupting public peace.
Civil libertarian groups such a the ACLU should not spend time and resources on such a minor issue. Instead, the far greater threat to separation between church and state is the Christian Family Coalition. Back in December, it convinced the Miami-Dade County Commission Board to reinstate commissioners' prayer time before official meetings.