National group challenges Wheaton council over prayer

Published: 10/9/2009 11:56 AM | Updated: 10/9/2009 3:09 PM

A national organization is challenging Wheaton's long-standing tradition of inviting religious leaders to conduct invocations before city council meetings.

The Freedom From Religion Foundation and one of its members from Wheaton this week notified Mayor Mike Gresk that the council is violating federal law by opening regular meetings with a prayer. The organization is urging the council to discontinue the practice.

Rebecca Kratz, the group's attorney, told Wheaton officials the type of prayer offered at council meetings violates the First Amendment and "inappropriately alienates non-Christians and nonbelievers."

Kratz said the prayers wrongly advance Christianity "and lead a reasonable observer to believe that the council is endorsing not only religion over nonreligion but also Christianity over other faiths."

On Friday, Gresk said he and the council won't decide how to respond until the city's attorney finishes researching the legality of the prayers, which have been going on for at least three decades.

Jim Knippen, Wheaton's attorney, said the Freedom From Religion Foundation has been notified the case law review has begun.

"You have to closely analyze the practice against the legal precepts to determine whether or not the practice is unconstitutional," Knippen said. "And that's what we're doing. We will attempt to make a fair, unbiased, nondenominational and nonsectarian determination of that issue and present our conclusions to the city council."

According to Kratz, the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that prayers during government meetings must be nondenominational and nonsectarian. The foundation's review of invocations given before Wheaton council meetings between March and September found the prayers "rarely, if ever," met that legal requirement.

A majority of the invocations contained specific references to Jesus Christ, according to the group.

Annie Laurie Gaylor, the foundation's co-president, said the problem is Wheaton has added a religious ritual to its agenda.

"It sends a message that the city and religion are united," Gaylor said. "In this case, our complaint is pointing out that it's not just religion and the city, but it's Christianity and the city. And that's where the Supreme Court has stepped in and said that's a no-no."

The Wheaton City Council isn't the only governmental body in DuPage County that regularly has prayers to open its meetings. The county board and forest preserve commission both have similar invocations.

Gaylor said the foundation contacted Wheaton because one of its officers, Theodore Utchen, lives in the community. In June, Utchen complained to city council members that he can see no good reason for prayers to be included as part of the council's official business.

"If you are really religious, then you pray to yourself and you go to church," Gaylor said. "You don't need to pray as a group as part of your city council meeting."