Fla. Commission Adopts Non-Sectarian Prayer Ordinance

A Florida Commission has adopted a new ordinance allowing for non-sectarian prayers before their meetings officially begin, prompting concern from church-state watchdog groups.

The Miami-Dade County Commission voted 8 to 3 on Tuesday to allow for non-sectarian prayers either from invited clergy or Commission members themselves. This new policy on prayers at meetings replaces the older practice of holding a moment of silence before meetings, which had been instituted in 2004.

The Christian Family Coalition, a socially conservative organization based in Miami, led the 18-month lobbying effort to change the policy on prayers. Anthony Verdugo, CFC Founder and Executive Director who formerly worked for the Florida chapter of the Christian Coalition, told The Christian Post that it was a good decision.

"It is a victory for the entire community! This ordinance generates for goodwill and respect for all people," said Verdugo.

According to Verdugo, several groups joined the CFC in getting the new prayer ordinance passed by the Commission. These groups included the African-American Council of Christian Clergy (AACCC), American-Israeli Friendship Council (AIFC), Florida Democratic League (FDL), Republican National Forum (RNF), and U.S. Hispanic Publishers Association (USHPA).

"Approximately 18 months ago, we began the process by training 40 citizen lobbyists who met with their individual county commissioners to lobby and build support for this groundbreaking legislation," said Verdugo.

"We then secured a sponsor and worked with the county attorney and our sponsor to file the bill."

While Verdugo and others celebrate the new prayer policy, groups like Americans United for Separation of Church and State have expressed concern. Joseph Conn, director of communications for American's United, wrote about the decision in a recent entry on the organization's blog "The Wall of Separation."

"Miami, Fla., is a major American city with extraordinary diversity. Why in the world would its elected leaders want to impose religion on its citizenry?" wrote Conn.

"A moment of silence excluded no one. The new policy certainly does. The Miami/Dade Commission has undercut church-state separation and individual freedom."

The Florida chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union has also expressed concern at the Commission's new prayer policy. Howard Simon, executive director of the ACLU of Florida, said in a statement that the vote was an example of "when politicians cave in to a group of religious zealots."

"The Ordinance that the Commission adopted today puts the County in a 'no-win' situation and is a roadmap for how to sue the County," said Simon.

Regarding concerns by various groups and the possibility of a future lawsuit, Verdugo told CP that the new prayer policy is a matter of freedom of speech and does not discriminate.

"This is a matter of speech equality, all forms of civil speech should be treated equally. This ordinance prohibits discrimination the basis of speech, how can that be exclusionary?" said Verdugo.

"We have as much right to deliver an invocation or solemnizing message before a meeting, as they have to not listen to that invocation."

The Miami-Dade County Commission did not return comment to The Christian Post by press time.