The Essex County Board of Supervisors.
An editorial published in a local newspaper has prompted Essex County supervisors to end the practice of prayer before county meetings.
A recent editorial written by the editorial board of the Glens Falls-based Post-Star newspaper questioning the legality of invocations in Washington County prompted Essex County chairman Randy Douglas to send an email to supervisors stating that the practice would no longer take place at the start of the monthly county meeting.
“I saw the piece and it clearly shows that what we are doing is illegal,” Douglas said. “I had to make the call because I could not have us continue to do something that was illegal under the constitution.”
Previously, County Clerk Joseph Provoncha, a Catholic Deacon, gave the monthly invocation at the beginning of the monthly board meeting. Douglas said that because there were no other denominations represented and because Provoncha had been using names of deity in the prayer which could be seen as an endorsement of religion, they could not continue the practice.
“I have a lot of respect for Joe and what he has done for us, but I had to make this decision based on the law,” Douglas said.
During the July 16 finance, tax reduction and mandate relief committee, North Hudson Supervisor Ronald Moore disagreed.
“The practice of prayer should be continued until the full board gets to talk about it,” Hudson said. “I don't think the chairman or anyone else can do this without the full board speaking on the matter. He has my greatest respect. But on this issue, I am disappointed. Why are we reacting to something that was in the Post-Star?”
Douglas responded, saying that he was following the law.
“I am a Catholic,” Douglas said. “I support the Catholic religion. I went to a Catholic school. When this got to such an issue that I decided to put a stop to it. You have to have a policy, and you do not have a policy in place. It's a horrible situation to be in to make a vote on something like this and personally, I don't appreciate it.”
Douglas also said that there are more weighty issues that the board needs to address.
“Do you want the attorney to spend his time on this matter,” Douglas said. “A higher government needs to make these decisions, not us. It's going to be highly disputed and a public controversy.”
Several other supervisors also weighed in on the matter.
“I have been coming here for 25 years,” Newcomb Supervisor George Canon said. “Prayer before the full board meeting has been on and off. I am not uncomfortable with it one way of another and I don't think that it has affected my decisions one way or another. I think that we have to move on.”
“I have no problem with the prayer being read here,” St. Armand Supervisor Joyce Morency said.
Trying to lighten the discussion, Moriah Supervisor Tom Scozzafava said, “I think that if there is any group that needs prayer it is this group.”
County attorney Daniel Manning talked about what would be needed in a “prayer policy,” including the need to involve prayer-givers of different denominations and references to different names of deity being removed.
“It basically sterilizes the prayer,” Manning said, adding about Douglas, “I think he wanted to make an executive decision and hoped that it would be honored.”
Manning said that, because of the editorial, people would be paying more attention to this issue at local boards.
“If you continue the prayers that we are now having, you are in violation of the Establishment Clause,” Manning said. “The cat is out of the bag now.”
“If this board is going to do something, then we need to recognize the diversity and power of faith across the board,” Minerva Supervisor Sue Montgomery Corey said.
“We do not have diversity here, and that is the problem,” Douglas said. “I appreciate all that Joe has done, but we do not have the diversity and I don't feel that it is right to continue. We are doing an illegal practice and that is the bottom line. I had to stop it.”
Elizabethtown Supervisor Margaret Bartley said that she felt uncomfortable not with prayer, but with someone else doing it.
“I find it uncomfortable that someone would lead me in prayer,” Bartley said. “I don't like the idea of an elected official leading a group of elected officials in prayer. I pray every time before I enter this hall.”
Moore said he felt this was the beginning of more anti-religious sentiment.
“I look at the sign that says, In God we Trust,” Moore said. “The pledge says, ‘under God.’ It seems to me that self interest groups are winning the battle. When does the majority get to have a say.”