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Board of Commissioners vote to change ‘moment of silent reflection’ to ‘moment of prayer’

The Livingston County Board of Commissioners voted 7-2 to approve a resolution adding a moment of prayer to the beginning of each meeting.

The resolution was originally proposed at the January 3rd meeting by Jay Drick, who advocated that the term ‘moment of silent reflection’ be changed to ‘moment of prayer’. The original plan was to create an optional schedule during which commissioners could bring in another person to lead them in prayer. The motion was supported by Wes Nakagiri, but Commissioner Doug Helzerman asked that the Board refer this decision to the General Government committee. 

The General Government Committee then referred the action back to the full board, the logic being – according to Commissioner Jay Gross – that since this matter first arose in a full Board meeting, it was up to the full Board to make a decision.

Helzerman was the first to bring up the matter at the January 17th meeting, approaching the Board as a citizen during the first call to the public. Initially, he asserted that “prayer should always be allowed, but never forced.” This statement seems contradictory to the speech that ensued, where he spoke at length of his vehement support for the resolution. 

“Freedom of religion is not freedom from religion,” Helzerman told the board. “Separation of church and state is not separation of state and religion.” He went on to claim the Founders asserted that “belief in the Creator was self-evident… which meant it was logical to assume a creator.”

It should be noted that the U.S. Constitution contains only two references to religion and both are exclusionary in nature. The First Amendment says, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion. . .” while in Article VI, Section III, it states “… no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States.”

Further, the Constitution only makes one specific reference to a deity. Article VII states: “Done in Convention by the Unanimous Consent of the States present the Seventeenth Day of September in the Year of our Lord one thousand seven hundred and Eighty seven and of the Independence of the United States of America the twelfth….”. That usage is a standard 18th Century date marker used in formal documents.

Regardless, newly appointed Chair Dave Domas told Helzerman that he “used his three minutes [of public speaking time] wisely.”

Lori Cowan of Unadilla Township was the only speaker in opposition to this proposal, and implored the Commissioners to “respect the diversity of the beliefs and faith of our Livingston County community and keep the moment of reflection in place.”

Alisa Davis of Brighton stated that she thought it was “wonderful that the more liberal community had the moment of silent reflection, but [she’d] like it to be more inclusive.” She suggested a compromise between the two, utilizing both terms to appeal to all parties.

It should be noted that the moment of silent reflection was never intended to be a liberal event. Board minutes from January 2nd, 2020 indicate that it was Doug Helzerman who initially proposed the addition of a moment of silent reflection to the Board’s agenda. This was then approved 8-1 by an entirely Republican board.

Newly elected Commissioner Roger Deaton admitted he was confused by the proposed changes, adding that he’d “always just assumed the two [moment of silent reflection and prayer] to be synonymous.” Despite this confusion, he voted in support of the amendment.

Jay Gross expressed that, while he had no objection to the addition of prayer, he was concerned about how this might impact the timeliness of meetings.

“Currently with the moment of silent reflection, we spend maybe 15 or 20 seconds. I personally don’t see the need to go to three or five minutes, regardless of what other legislative bodies might do.”

Gross later tried to amend the resolution to limit prayer to one minute, though it failed to receive enough votes. 

Drick elaborated that, should this resolution be adopted, it should be “a commissioner-controlled prayer” as compared to being a public event. Citing 140 churches and 55 “non-church religious organizations,” Drick agreed that this level of public involvement would only serve to complicate the proceedings.

The official vote was conducted rather hastily, following Helzerman’s failed motion to table the subject until the next meeting. The amended resolution passed 8-2, with Commissioners Gross and Domas voting against it. As the Chair, Domas is now responsible for “solicit[ing] volunteers for the responsibility of praying.”

The 1971 Supreme Court Case Lemon v. Kurtzman determined that in order for a government to function in accordance with the Constitution, the government must have a non-religious purpose, not favor or promote any particular set of beliefs, and not overly involve the government with religion. In 2022, the Supreme Court de facto overturned this ruling, meaning that while the precedent is still legally enshrined in U.S. law, it’s not necessarily practiced. As a result, the legality of the Board’s action remains uncertain.

The Board of Commissioners will next meet on January 30th.

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