Prayer quietly provokes controversy
The new element was never discussed in open session, and has not been made part of the board’s official policy.
However, Commissioner Allen Springer, who assumed the chair when Mary Stern resigned to take a job with the Association of Oregon Counties, said he discussed it beforehand with his holdover colleague, Kathy George. He said she had no objection.
The move came against the backdrop of a recent U.S. Supreme Court decision, handed down in Town of Greece v. Galloway. The decision states that incorporating invocations into public meetings does not violate the constitutional doctrine on separation of church and state.
“We checked in with county counsel,” Springer said. “The Supreme Court has allowed it and we’re going to do it.”
County Counsel Christian Boenisch confirmed that, saying, “The commissioners know and understand the parameters of the Greece decision and are staying within those parameters.”
Newly elected Commissioner Mary Starrett, whose term wasn’t slated to start until January, was seated early to replace Sterm. Although the decision had already been made by then, she said she had no objection either.
“If you ask 10 people, you would get 10 different ways of approaching prayer and spirituality,” Starrett said. And she said the board invocations reflect that finding.
“There are different styles to how we approach this,” she said. “Some are quiet, some are bold.”
Starrett said she had received no feedback on the practice either way. Springer said he had, but the majority had been supportive.
“I think it’s the right thing to do,” Springer said. “The Senate starts out with invocation. So do the House of Representatives and the Supreme Court.
“I don’t think it’s anything to be embarrassed about. It’s something to be proud about; it’s our heritage.”
Springer has generally introduced pastors from local churches and had them provide the invocations. Last week, his wife, Kerri, did the honors.
He said he has compiled a list of local pastors and lay people interested in offering invocations.
Springer has been inviting those present to stand if they wish to participate. If someone with business before the commissioners were to remain seated or leave the room, it would not affect his decision making, he said.
“I don’t care,” he said. “It wouldn’t influence my decision. It doesn’t make any difference to me.”
The practice has generated an extensive exchange on the News-Register website and several letters to editor, with opinion sharply divided, no one has yet raised the issue during the public comment period at a commission meeting.
“I’ve encouraged people who have a problem to please come down and check it out for themselves,” Springer said. “No one I’ve seen write against it has seen what it’s about.”