City officials promote prayer at local pageant
June 6, 2009 at 4:21 p.m. by Luke Graybill
On May 30, 2009, the Miss Salem pageant was held in Salem City Utah. The city of Salem sponsored the event, and the Mayor of the city, J. Lane Henderson, gave opening comments. An invocation led by Salem City Councilperson Lynn Durrant called the attending public to prayer in the name of Jesus Christ.
According to the First Amendment of the US Constitution, preference by the government of one religion over another, non-religion over religion, or religion over non-religion, is prohibited. The Supreme Court has repeatedly ruled that religious invocations at public events are unconstitutional.
In Lee v. Weisman (1992), the Supreme Court ruled unconstitutional the offering of prayers by religious officials before voluntarily attended ceremonies such as graduation. Thus, the Court established that the state could not conduct religious exercises at public occasions even if attendance was not strictly compulsory.
After the Miss Salem 2009 event, I confronted Mayor Henderson about this, and he dismissed the concern categorically, even stating that his council meetings regularly begin with prayer.
As established by the Constitution and demonstrated through Supreme Court decisions, it is quite inappropriate for the Salem City government representatives to be conducting prayers at publicly attended events such as the Miss Salem 2009 pageant.
I am in the process of writing to Mayor Henderson and Councilperson Durrant regarding these concerns, and will demand a public apology and a declaration that Salem City will adhere to the US Constitution by no longer promoting religion or conducting prayers at public events in the future. My concerns will also be communicated to the ACLU and other appropriate civil rights organizations.
Update: An email containing roughly identical text has been sent to Mayor Henderson. Unable to find contact information for Councilperson Durrant at this time.
Update 2: Report submitted to Americans United for Separation of Church and State (AU).
Update 3: Sent letter to the editor of The Spanish Fork News, the closest (that I know of) local paper to Salem City.
Update 4: Received notice from editor that my letter will be printed in the next edition. Yay!
Update 5: Mayor Henderson replied to me, stating that he's forwarded my email to Councilperson Durrant. He also corrected me on one thing; he never actually told me that his council meetings begin with prayer. What he said was that they frequently begin with a "volunteer message of inspiration", which I took to mean prayer in the context of our conversation. My apologies to the Mayor if I misrepresented his comment in any way. However, that is all incidental to the real issue at hand; government-led prayer at a public event.