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Prayer before meetings

When Tom Reke went to a recent Akron City Council meeting, he was surprised to hear a local minister refer to Jesus in a prayer before the meeting.

Reke, an Akron resident who describes himself as a born-again atheist, knew the council had stopped saying the Lord's Prayer before meetings and was inviting local ministers to deliver remarks instead. But he thought the prayers were supposed to be nonsectarian and didn't think this one fit that definition.

Reke took his complaint to council members, the council clerk and the Akron law department. When he didn't see any change, he turned to the Freedom of Religion Foundation in Madison, Wis., which sent a letter on his behalf to the council this week, urging a change to the prayer practice.

''I just don't feel like prayer has a place in government meetings,'' said Reke, a retired employee with the Department of Veteran Affairs. ''If people want to pray, they can pray before they get there.''

In the foundation's letter to the council, the group detailed several instances when ministers who said prayers at Akron council meetings between November and December referred to Jesus. One minister began by saying, ''Dear Lord Jesus,'' while another closed with, ''In Christ's name, Amen.'' Another finished with, ''We ask this in the name that is above all names, the name of Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.''

Rebecca Markert, the foundation's attorney, told the council these prayers ''alienate non-Christians and nonbelievers in Akron'' and said the council is ''inappropriately entangling itself with religion.'' She asked that the council discontinue its ''official government prayers.''

The Freedom from Religion Foundation is the same group that threatened to sue the Lake school board unless the district removed ''belief of God'' from its mission statement. The Stark County school board, which heard Monday from people who were for and against this phrase being included, has opted to no longer use it.

Akron officials, however, say they're keeping their prayer.

The council stopped reciting the Lord's Prayer before meetings in 2007 after another group, Americans United for Separation of Church and State in Washington, D.C., threatened legal action. The council instead started saying the Lord's Prayer in private before each meeting and invited a local minister to say a prayer at the beginning of each meeting.

Council President Marco Sommerville said the council has tried to be inclusive in its invitations, with a rabbi recently offering a prayer and a Muslim scheduled to speak at next Monday's meeting. He said council members don't influence what the visiting clergy say in their remarks.

''I'm not going to tell anybody how to pray,'' he said.

Sommerville said the council doesn't want to go without a prayer.

''This is the Bible belt,'' he said. ''Most people are Baptists, Protestants.''

Sommerville invited any ministers who want to offer a prayer at an upcoming council meeting to call the clerk's office at 330-375-2256.

Law Director Cheri Cunningham thinks the city's current prayer practice would be defensible if it were challenged.

''How can you make an atheist happy?'' she asked. ''To not have any prayer of any kind. I don't think that's the law.''

The council's defense of its right to prayer may end up in court.

Annie Laurie Gaylor, co-president of the Freedom From Religion Foundation, said the group may sue if the City Council doesn't change its current practice.

''We think everything just works more smoothly when we keep God out of government,'' she said. ''What if they were promoting atheism — saying, 'There is no God.' That would be just as egregious. That's the other side of the coin.''