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Essex Co. lawmakers debate public prayer

August 1, 2012

The chairman of the Essex County Board of Supervisors says he didn't want his decision to end public prayer before meetings to distract from other county business.

But Randy Douglas, D-Jay, said Monday that's exactly what has happened.

Douglas said county Clerk Deb Palmer recently shared an article that appeared in the Glens Falls Post-Star with supervisors. The newspaper reported that the New York Civil Liberties Union condemned the Washington County Board of Supervisors for beginning monthly meetings with "sometimes politically charged sermons."

According to Douglas, county Attorney Dan Manning told supervisors that the establishment clause of the U.S. Constitution forbids government from endorsing any specific religion. Douglas said because county Clerk Joe Provoncha, who leads the monthly prayer, is a Catholic deacon, he felt the board wasn't complying with the law.

Manning said public prayer is acceptable at government meetings as long as a policy is in place and it doesn't single out one religion.

"We don't have a prayer policy," Douglas told the Enterprise. "You're supposed to rotate around between different religions and make it available to someone else to do the prayer.

"I ended the policy," he added. "I emailed the board. I was hoping it wouldn't get into a big discussion about religion and separation of church and state. I'm still committed to having it stop. If the board does a resolution to override my decision, then that's what they do."

Douglas, who is Catholic, said as long as he's chairman, the board is "not going to do anything illegal."

One supervisor attempted to bring back prayer last week. North Hudson town Supervisor Ronald Moore said he felt the board should have made the decision collectively as opposed to Douglas ending the practice himself. He offered a resolution last week to rescind Douglas' decision, but it was tabled so Manning could provide the board with more information on the law as it pertains to prayer at government meetings.

"Dan Manning will tell us what is legal and what is proper in the policy," Douglas said. "We'll get a written legal opinion on what we can and can't do, then we'll bring it before the board."

Douglas said he is in favor of prayer as long as the board is in accordance with state and federal laws.

"Some are adamant that we can't do it at all," he said.

North Elba town Supervisor Roby Politi said he was upset by some of the comments made at last week's meeting. He said some supervisors suggested that most board members were Christian.

"Some of those comments were nonsense," Politi said. "This is a diverse nation. You don't single out Christians as opposed to other denominations and faiths and so forth. It was embarrassing."

Douglas said he knew the issue would "blow up." He said he wishes that didn't happen because the county is trying to work on a major emergency radio project, continue recovery from last year's Tropical Storm Irene and hammer out the details on the sale of the Horace Nye Nursing Home.

"We've got so much on our plate," Douglas said.



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