With possible entanglement in a lawsuit as a backdrop, Klickitat County Prosecuting Attorney Tim O'Neill came to White Salmon's Pioneer Center last Wednesday, Dec. 19. He was there to answer questions from seniors about prayer in a public facility.
"It's an emotional issue," O'Neill pointed out before he spoke to the gathered seniors. "People brought up with religion want to be able to pray."
O'Neill said the prayers are only a problem if county employees or volunteers for the county lead prayers at the senior center.
"Voluntary prayer can be done, but the objection is to led-prayer by county employees or volunteers," O'Neill explained. "You may voluntarily pray, and your right to pray will not be interfered with. If you don't wish to participate, you don't have to. People can't be coerced. But if it's private and others join in, I don't want to stop that, and I can't stop that."
About 100 people were at the senior center dining room for the Dec. 19 lunch, and O'Neill sought to reassure those in the crowd that no one's rights would be impinged upon.
"It has been reported that the county is banning prayer," O'Neill said. "That is not being considered or proposed. If you want to pray, pray. If you don't want to pray, don't. It's not the tyranny of the majority, nor the tyranny of the minority."
O'Neill distributed copies of three letters his office had received regarding the issue of public prayer. Two of the letters came from organizations that work to uphold a clear separation of church and state. In their letters, these organizations stressed that individuals are free to pray to themselves, but "individuals may not ... impose a group prayer on others or appropriate the microphone to impose devotions on a captive audience."
"We request that the [Klickitat County] Board of Commissioners adopt a policy prohibiting the presentation of prayers as part of the program that accompanies the delivery of government-subsidized meals for senior citizens," wrote Nancy Leong of the Americans United for Separation of Church & State, based in Washington, D.C.
Another letter took exactly the opposite stance, stating that "the government is not permitted to interfere in the private prayers of citizens."
"In your situation, your group wants to pray in a private building at a private function. The government has absolutely no authority to prohibit or permit anything religious in that context ... I would be happy to review the letter your [county] government officials received, which apparently implies that they have the right to act as an American Gestapo," read an excerpt from the letter, signed by Barbara Weller of the Gibbs Law Firm of Seminole, Fla.
One of the seniors in attendance, Don Warneke, said he wondered if the issue was a sign of the government trying to control people.
"When are they going to tell us what we are going to eat," Warneke questioned.
The controversy came up after one of the citizens who attends lunches at the Pioneer Center questioned whether county officials or county representatives should be leading prayers at the public functions.
White Salmon resident Diane Allen pointed out that the Pioneer Center uses federal funds and should not impose religious values on those attending the senior meals or other activities. She said she believes Klickitat County has been derelict in dealing with the issue.
"They have allowed a violation of the Constitution to prevail," Allen said. "When I came to the Pioneer Center over a year ago, I was rather annoyed by the prayer, and I found that other people felt the same way. Some of them just boycott the place; others come but don't speak out because of fear of intimidation. I have strong feelings about the individual rights of Americans, and we can only maintain these rights if someone is willing to stand up and fight."
Allen's stance brought a rebuke from some in the crowd.
"I'd like to ask Ms. Allen why she started this. It has riled so many seniors, who were so upset," said one during the public session.
Allen went to the microphone to respond.
"I support the U.S. Constitution, and I think it calls for separation of church and state," Allen said. "Everyone has the right to pray; to be religious or not be religious."
Some said they did not understand how their prayers had been turned into a controversy.
"We have a right. Whoever doesn't want to pray doesn't have to. This is all being blown up for nothing," one woman said. "We all let people do what they want. We don't understand why anybody wants to cause problems among people."
Mary Ann Voigt, president of the Senior Advisory Council, said she resented letters in the newspaper that alleged she had forced people to pray.
"I have never done that," Voigt said, "and I don't like to be ridiculed like that."
Another woman wondered why one protest could serve to halt a practice the majority of seniors strongly supported.
"If one person has the right to complain about what goes on, and even if everybody else here says we want to have prayer, we're outvoted by that one person," she said.
O'Neill said he saw the issue on a human level.
"This is not a question of winners and losers, and it's not a question of majority rule. It's a question of showing respect to each other. It's manners and respect. Act the way you want others to act. That's it," O'Neill said.
Others saw the complaints about public prayer as one more step on the way to a more sinister future.
"If we give in to this, next they will be after us for crosses in our yards, or after me for praying in my home," said one woman. "I feel like our community is starting to back us into a corner, and I'm intimidated by it. If they don't want to worship God, that's their choice. But I don't want them intimidating me. I don't like that."
"I'm trying to allay your fears," O'Neill responded. "That's what I'm here to tell you. If you're going to pray, pray. If you start a prayer and others join in, that's fine, and you can even hold hands. But it can't be a government employee or county volunteer leading the prayer."
Allen said she believed there was a logical way out of the controversy.
"The solution is so simple: Hold a moment of silence rather than a led prayer," Allen explained. "The senior centers are federally funded in part. Employees and volunteers may not lead the group in prayer, but people can sit at their tables and pray together."
O'Neill said he hoped the issue could be settled without further action.
"I will send letters to these groups who have raised the issue, and hopefully everything will go back to harmony," he explained. "There is nothing to be gained by litigation. This should not be a divisive issue, and I hope it doesn't spoil this group."
After the meeting, Voigt said she thought the controversy over prayer was sad.
"It's all uncalled for," Voigt said. "I hated to see this all erupt here at Christmas time."
On Friday, O'Neill said he hoped his talk resolved questions about the issue.
"My major emphasis is eliminating the county as being seen as either directing or requiring prayer. I think I've done that," O'Neill explained. "I don't know if I can please everybody on all sides, but that's not my job. I am not a prayer cop."
Voigt said the prayers would continue, but county representatives would be kept out of it.
"We're going to go ahead and say the Lord's Prayer," Voigt added. "Someone at a table will start it. Anybody can lead it. We're certainly not going to stop it."