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County commissioner floating new county prayer policy

Business meetings of the Island County Board of Commissioners may soon begin with a dash of the divine.

At the request of Chairwoman Kelly Emerson, the board is scheduled to discuss next week whether or not the formal Monday meetings should begin with a prayer.

“It’s been something I’ve been thinking about for some time,” said Emerson, during an interview Friday with the Whidbey News-Times.

The board generally meets in open session twice a week and Monday meetings are the more formal of two. It’s when the commissioners vote on code changes, hold public hearings and discuss other big issues.

Those meetings can be highly charged, and Emerson, a self-described born-again Christian, said an opening prayer may bring a little “civility” to the discussion.

The commissioner hasn’t put forward a proposal detailing what prayers would be offered or by whom. Instead, she asked only for a general discussion during the board’s Wednesday, June 5 work session.

So far, the proposal is seeing some support.

“I’m looking forward to the discussion,” Commissioner Jill Johnson said. “I’m not opposed to prayer.”

Commissioner Helen Price Johnson could not be reached for comment by press time.

Island County was established in 1852 and it’s unclear whether business meetings of the commissioners have ever began with a prayer.

At the very least, it hasn’t been done in nearly 40 years.

“To the best of my recollection, we’ve never done that in Island County, and I go back to 1976 with the prosecutor’s office,” Superior Court Judge Alan Hancock said.

According to former county commissioner Mac McDowell, who served from 1993 to 2008, the county only started reciting the Pledge of Allegiance shortly after he was elected.

Hancock declined to comment on the appropriateness of prayer in public meetings, saying it’s possible the issue would come before him in court.

McDowell said he doesn’t see anything wrong with a prayer.

“If you want my opinion, I think it’s a good idea despite all the controversy it might cause,” McDowell said.

He noted that it’s not unusual, citing Oak Harbor and U.S. Congress.

The Oak Harbor council has opened it’s monthly meetings with a prayer for years, but not without some controversy.

The same may be true should the commissioners’ follow suit.

“I think prayers in a public meeting are inappropriate,” said Ledgewood resident Dick Caldwell, a county commissioner from 1987 to 1982.

Unless there is a specific observance, such as a prayer on Memorial Day, Caldwell said he doesn’t believe they should be allowed.

“I just don’t think it’s necessary,” he said. “I don’t think it adds anything.”

Johnson, a member of the Reformed Church of America congregation, said she disagrees.

“To be honest, I pray before every meeting,” Johnson said. “I don’t think it’s bad to ground these meetings in something bigger than yourself.”

That doesn’t mean that there shouldn’t be guidelines as to what’s allowed. If something does move forward, rules need to be in place that mirror those of Oak Harbor, she said.

Prayers are conducted by religious leaders from multiple faiths in an attempt to ensure no favoritism. The idea isn’t to advocate for one faith over another but to have “moment of reflection,” Johnson said.

“Of course, we’re not going to do anything without legal review.”

Emerson said she researched the issue and isn’t aware of any legal headaches that might arise. She said she believes the proposal will meet with public approval.

“I see no reason for them not to,” she said.

“They can see the benefit of civility.”

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