Madison County

‘Prayer ought not to be divisive.’ Controversial Berea prayer order tabled after outcry.

Bereans for Fairness held a rally and marched to city hall to face the Berea City Council as they voted on the proposed ordinance to create a human rights commission on Tuesday September 20, 2011 in Berea, Ky. Photo by Mark Cornelison | Staff
Bereans for Fairness held a rally and marched to city hall to face the Berea City Council as they voted on the proposed ordinance to create a human rights commission on Tuesday September 20, 2011 in Berea, Ky. Photo by Mark Cornelison | Staff

The Berea City Council voted Tuesday to remove a controversial proposal that would limit who can give invocations before council meetings from its agenda after questions were raised about the legality of the order.

The municipal order, which would appoint a local Baptist minister as the chaplain of the council and give that person the job of praying before council meetings, was sent to a council committee for further review.

Councilman Jerry Little made the motion to remove the order from the council’s agenda at the start of Tuesday’s meeting. Little said the delay will give the council more time to study the issue and make recommendations.

The original order proposed hiring Rev. Kevin Slemp, the minister of Berea Baptist Church, as the council chaplain. Slemp would deliver invocations before council meeting and would be paid $25 for each meeting, according to a draft of the original order.

The proposal was revised hours before Tuesday’s meeting to delete the $25 payment but still kept Slemp as the council chaplain. Additional language was also added that said “this policy is not intended in any way to affiliate the Council with, nor express the Council’s preference for any faith or religious denomination.”

Still, the majority of people who spoke during Tuesday night’s meeting said they opposed the proposed order because it was alienating, unconstitutional, not needed and disrespectful to Berea’s citizens and its history of tolerance.

“This order does not solve a problem,” said Tony Crachliolo. He suggested the council focus on revitalizing Chestnut Street, re-writing its ethics code, solving drainage problems, helping the homeless and fixing pot holes.

“It’s going to be used as a tool to silence Berea citizens who do not share the same faith,” Crachiolo said.

The proposal violates the First Amendment clause that prohibits government from establishing an official religion, said Kent Gilbert, minister of Union Church in Berea and president of the Kentucky Council of Churches. The ordinance would promote a specific religion by hiring a Baptist minister to give all city council invocations, he said.

The Kentucky Council of Churches has challenged similar government-sponsored efforts to promote one religion over another, he said. If passed, the group would likely challenge this one, he said.

“God ought not to be a point of division,” Gilbert said. “Prayer ought not to be divisive.”

The Rev. Kenneth Gilbert of Union Church spoke in support as Bereans for Fairness held a rally and marched to city hall to face the Berea City Council on Tuesday September 20, 2011. Gilbert also spoke Tuesday night against an ordinance that would appoint a Baptist minister to give the invocations before the council. Mark Cornelison

The “kerfuffle” — as one speaker Tuesday night called it — over who can lead the invocation started in 2017, when the council passed an order allowing invocations before council meetings. Before that, there was traditionally no prayer before meetings.

In March, Ali Blair, an atheist, gave an invocation that prompted an outcry from some. Some audience members walked out, according to people who attended the meeting.

During that same March meeting, a man who said he was a Satanist also said he wanted to give the invocation.

Other ministers have made the council uncomfortable with the tone and vigor of their invocations, said Councilwoman Emily LaDouceur, who has been outspoken in her concerns that the proposed ordinance is unconstitutional.

LaDouceur said she was not aware the order was going to be proposed until Friday, when the council received information about the agenda for Tuesday. LaDouceur posted the proposed order on Facebook on Saturday.

“This (proposal) is not reflective of the people of Berea. Everyone who spoke last night was against it,” LaDouceur said Wednesday.

She has received about 25 emails about the proposed order and only two supported it, she said. “We got a lot of emails from prominent people in the community, including former council members and members of the clergy, who urged us not to pass it.”

LaDouceur also said there are questions about how Slemp was picked for the job when no one else was interviewed or knew about the newly-created position.

For now, the proposal will go to the invocation committee, of which LaDouceur is a member.

Berea Mayor Bruce Fraley said no date has been set for the committee to revisit the issue. Fraley said he did not know why the the proposal was made or why Slemp was picked as the chaplain.

“I really don’t know the reason and I would be speaking out of school if I spoke for them,” Fraley said Wednesday of the council. “I do think it was wise on the council’s part to take time to thoroughly research the issue.“

Debate over religion’s role in government has become increasingly political in recent years.

Laws that require all public schools to post “In God We Trust” in a prominent place were recently passed in Kentucky and several other states. Fayette County Public School’s decision to frame and display $1 bills to comply with the new law won applause from some and jeers from others.