Disputing Discriminatory Devotions

Delaware Residents Challenge Sussex County Council’s Sponsorship Of The Lord’s Prayer

As long as Barbara Mullin has lived in Sussex County, Del., she has heard rumblings of mistreatment of families belonging to minority faiths – just because they stood up for the Constitution and their rights.

“I was very aware that there was a push for a certain kind of religion, and I heard stories about what happened to people who challenged it in the public schools,” Mullin recalled, noting in particular a Jewish family that opposed religious intolerance at a local school district. When they spoke out against it, the harassment was so great that they felt forced to leave town.

Mullin, a retired nurse and former president of the local Coalition for Tolerance and Justice, knew this wasn’t right. When she started attending Sussex County Council meetings on behalf of the League of Women Voters, she learned firsthand what it felt like to be made an outsider by government.

Each session at the Sussex County Administrative Office Building in Georgetown, Del., begins with Council President Michael H. Vincent leading a recitation of the Protestant version of the Lord’s Prayer over the chamber’s public-address system. Members of the audience stand and bow their heads during the Christian observance. Since 2009, the prayer has been included in the council minutes as an “invocation.”

Sectarian prayer isn’t the only practice that sends a signal of government involvement with religion. A Ten Commandments display is prominent in the council chamber. And attendees at meetings are sometimes subjected to discussions about the council’s annual prayer breakfast. The entire experience leads members of the audience to think there is a preferred faith, Mullin said.

“When the president starts the recitation of the Lord’s Prayer,” she said, “I feel resentful that they think this choice is theirs instead of mine.

“People who attend these meetings are pressured to go along with this,” Mullin continued, “and for any young students who happen to be attending, it certainly gives them a very erroneous view of what America is.”

After hearing AU Executive Director Barry W. Lynn speak in Sussex County in May 2008, Mullin contacted Americans United to file a formal complaint.

In June 2008, the Americans United Legal Department first wrote to the council, explaining that legislative prayers that are used to advance one religion are unconstitutional and requesting that the practice be discontinued.

“[P]rayers before legislatures and other representative public bodies that contained sectarian rather than ecumenical and inclusive language have repeatedly been held unconstitutional,” AU’s letter asserted. “The Lord’s Prayer is a Christian prayer drawn from the New Testament, and is therefore sectarian.”

AU never received a response. In April 2009, Americans United attorneys sent another letter and, again, got no reply.

On June 30 of this year, Americans United filed a lawsuit in federal district court. AU asked the judge to permanently enjoin the council from sponsoring the Lord’s Prayer or any other sectarian invocations.

“The council was elected to represent all of the county’s citizens, Christian or otherwise,” said Ayesha N. Khan, Americans United legal director. “By persistently sponsoring this Christian prayer, the county council has publicly aligned itself with a single faith.

“We have nothing against prayer,” Khan continued, “But the Constitution does not give government officials the right to favor one religion over others.”

Mullin is serving as the lead plaintiff in the lawsuit, along with three other Sussex County residents. They are the Rev. John Steinbruck, a retired Lutheran minister, Julie Jackson, a Christian and indigenous-rights activist, and William O’Connor, a retired research psychologist. All of the plaintiffs have attended council meetings in the past and were offended by the governmental body’s promotion of one religious perspective and disregard of the community’s religious diversity.

Steinbruck in particular takes offense at the council’s recitation of the prayer because he believes it is a misuse of his religion and a distortion of the prayer’s meaning.

“I believe prayer is too important, too sacred and too personal to be used as a political device by government officials,” Steinbruck said. “The Lord’s Prayer calls for justice – meeting the needs of the poor, homeless, jobless, those being foreclosed upon – and to ‘do so on earth as in heaven.’ That should be the council’s agenda and the preamble to everything they do. These council members have misinterpreted this prayer, using it in a way to be exclusive and hurt others.”

Many Sussex County residents support the government’s preferential treatment of Christianity, because the majority of those living in the community are Christian and they like the governmental promotion of their faith.

For religious minorities in the area, however, that attitude has created a hostile environment, especially for those who object to the government-sponsored Christian activities.

The prime example is the Dobrich family, who in June 2004, sued the Indian River School District in Sussex County after years of being the targets of proselytization and after a preacher delivered an exclusionary message at graduation.

Mona Dobrich, the mother of two children, told The New York Times that the minister’s talk at the commencement ceremony boiled down to “no matter how good a person you are, the only way you’ll ever be anything is through Jesus Christ.”

After filing the lawsuit, the Dobriches, who are Jewish, faced extreme harassment and had to move out of the county. The family settled their complaint, but part of the lawsuit is ongoing. The local school board is still being sued for opening meetings with Christian prayers. (Americans United filed a friend-of-the-court brief in that case.)

Other examples of religious intolerance in Sussex County have emerged. In April 2010, a clerk at the Division of Motor Vehicles office in Georgetown, Del., told a 16-year-old Muslim girl that she could not take her driver’s license photograph while wearing a hijab, despite an agency policy that allows Muslim headscarves.

The clerk said she had to remove the head covering because of “national security policy,” and according to the young girl’s mother, she was made to feel like a terrorist.

“She was crying in the picture,” the mother told the Wilmington News Journal. “It’s not an acceptable picture to have on the license.”

Residents of the county have also been supportive of ultra-conservative candidates who question church-state separation as a constitutional principle. The county’s Republican Party chairman is Glen Urquhart, who lost his 2010 race for Delaware’s lone U.S. House seat, but carried Sussex County. Urquhart is a foe of church-state separation.

“Do you know where this phrase ‘separation of church and state’ comes from?” Urquhart asked. “The exact phrase ‘separation of church and state’ came out of Adolf Hitler’s mouth. That’s where it comes from. So the next time your liberal friends talk about the separation of church and state, ask them why they’re Nazis.” In fact, the phrase came from the pen of none other than Thomas Jefferson, long before the rise of the Third Reich.

Delaware Senate candidate Christine O’Donnell also questioned church-state separation in a televised debate in 2010, asking, “Where in the Constitution is separation of church and state?” She lost the election, but carried Sussex County handily.

Since AU’s lawsuit was filed, many members of the community have shown their ignorance of the Constitution and the history of the United States – just like the candidates they support.

Former council member Dale Dukes, a Laurel-area Democrat, told the Salisbury, Md., Daily Times that past council members had agreed to defend government-sponsored prayers in court if anyone sued, and he hoped the current council would do the same

“We all thought that it was very much essential, it was very much needed,” he said.

Current council member Vance Phillips has told the media he plans to stand by the recitation of the Christian prayer.

“I think it’s disappointing that people are challenging the positive traditions that make Sussex County great,” said Phillips (R-Laurel). “This one may have to be adjudicated but I think the people of Sussex County will stand behind the Sussex County Council for upholding these traditions.”

Phillips said the county has received many calls from people who want to assist the county in defending its invocation policy. One of these is the Religious Right legal group Liberty Counsel.

Liberty University Law School Dean Mat Staver, who heads the organization, said AU’s lawsuit is “anti-religious,” despite the fact that two of the plaintiffs are devout Christians.

“If it were up to them, they would rewrite our founding history,” he insists. “They would take ‘we are endowed by our Creator with certain inalienable rights’ out of the Declaration of Independence; they would eliminate prayer [and] any kind of recognition or acknowledgement of God.

“Clearly, this is constitutional,” Staver asserted, “and we need to absolutely, unequivocally draw a line in the sand and resist these efforts to de-Christianize and de-religionize America by these radical organizations.”

But Staver’s analysis of the legal situation isn’t shared by most constitutional authorities. Even the Alliance Defense Fund (ADF), one of the leading Religious Right legal groups, doesn’t back Staver’s stance. The ADF contacted members of the Sussex County Council in May 2009, urging them to change their policy to include prayers from a wider variety of individuals.

That’s because the law is clear in this area. In County of Allegheny v. ACLU, the U.S. Supreme Court indicated that the recitation of sectarian prayers by government officials before legislative meetings is unconstitutional.

“[N]ot even the unique history of legislative prayer can justify contemporary legislative prayers that have the effect of affiliating the government with any one specific faith or belief,” the high court held in that 1989 decision.

Despite Sussex County’s tilt toward ultra-conservative religious and political convictions, many residents agree with AU’s lawsuit. It’s an indication that the political climate in Sussex County may be changing now that retirees from urban areas such as Washington, D.C., have settled in communities near the Atlantic beaches. They’ve brought diversity to the county, and many don’t agree with government interference with religion.

For example, the Rev. Dorothy P. Greet of Lewes, Del., submitted a letter to the editor of the Cape Gazette, a local bi-weekly, thanking the plaintiffs for bringing the lawsuit to stop the council’s “offensive and unconstitutional practice.”

The Wilmington News Journal also published an editorial in support.

“How many citizens are the [council] members excluding in furthering their own religious beliefs by using their government office?” the state’s largest daily asked. “The council’s unwillingness to change is insulting to citizens and the spirit of the First Amendment.”

The challenge even drew some support from one conservative blogger. Frank Knotts, who comments at DelawarePolitics.net, insisted that the nation’s founders did not want government to impose religion.

“I feel that as individuals we are guaranteed a right to believe or not believe in a higher power. To pray or not to pray,” Knotts wrote. “But I also feel that as a body of government, the Sussex County Council has no place in leading prayers at official government meetings, where, I might add, they are elected to represent all citizens, of all faiths or of no faith.”

Mullin said she hopes this case brings about a positive change in Sussex County.

“I expect there will be some people who claim Christians are being persecuted,” Mullin said. “But that’s not the truth or what this case really is about. When you read about church-state separation, you learn that it is just as beneficial to religion for the government to stay out of it.

“All I want is for the council to have a respect for diversity,” she continued. “That’s what America is all about.”

Americans United’s Mullin v. Sussex County complaint was filed in U.S. District Court for the District of Delaware. It was drafted by AU’s Khan, with assistance from AU Madison Fellow Hellen Papavizas, AU Stephen Gey Fellow Robert Shapiro and Delaware attorney David L. Finger. (Papavizas is admitted in Massachusetts only, and Shapiro is admitted in Virginia only. Both are directly supervised by Khan, a member of the D.C. Bar)