CONCORD -- On the heels of the U.S. Supreme Court's official blessing of prayer at government meetings, Councilman Dan Helix wants to reinstate the practice Concord abandoned years ago.
During his first stint on the City Council from 1968 to 1976, representatives from a variety of religious faiths and denominations were invited to open each meeting with a brief prayer, according to Helix.
Noting that the U.S. Senate, House of Representatives and both houses of the state Legislature begin each day with a prayer, Helix believes it would be appropriate for Concord, too.
"If you're Jewish, if you're Muslim, if you're whatever ... we will have all faiths represented," Helix said. "We take a minute to pledge allegiance to our country; why not take a minute to acknowledge that there's a higher power?"
But Helix draws the line at Satanists, even if excluding them could expose the city to a discrimination claim.
"I would not invite a Satanist, no, because Satan is the devil," he said. "If Satan is someone's higher power, that's their problem. I'm not worried about a lawsuit on this." In May, the Supreme Court ruled in the case Town of Greece v. Galloway that local government meetings can begin with prayer, even if the blessing includes words associated with a specific faith such as "Jesus" or "Allah." However, local governments can't discriminate and must make a "reasonable attempt" to invite representatives of all local faiths or religious institutions to lead the prayer, said Mark Coon, Concord's city attorney.
The council's Policy Development and Internal Operations Committee will review Helix's proposal and make a recommendation to the full council. The committee is scheduled to consider the prayer proposal again in October. If approved, Concord likely would be the only East Bay city to begin government meetings with a prayer.
When they met last month, Mayor Tim Grayson and Councilman Ron Leone peppered city staff with questions -- How would Concord establish a fair rotation among the faiths in the city? How would the content of the prayer would be determined? Are there any legal restrictions on the practice given the court's ruling? Why was the practice discontinued?
"I would see so many complicated issues related to this. I just don't know how it could be accomplished," said Leone, who added that he shares concerns about maintaining the separation of church and state.
Grayson, a Concord Police Department chaplain, said the proposal merits consideration but acknowledged faith is a sensitive topic.
The Rev. Will McGarvey, executive director of the Interfaith Council of Contra Costa County, said prayers should be nonpartisan and reflect the diversity of Concord's faith community, which includes many churches for Christian denominations, an Islamic center and a Hindu temple. There is no synagogue or Sikh temple, he noted, although some followers of these faiths probably live in Concord, too.
"So a question for them is, in order to have a Jewish representative from time to time would they ask one of the two rabbis from Walnut Creek to come?" said McGarvey, pastor of Community Presbyterian Church of Pittsburg.
The entwining of government and religion often inflames passions on both sides of the issue. A recent Concord council meeting offered a preview of how Helix's effort to bring prayer back might play out.
"I don't think anything that this body does to promote conflating government and religion is a good idea," Michael Munzell told the council.
Greg Sanborn blasted council members for using staff time to research the issue and urged them to end the discussion altogether.
"Some people in the cyberspace call this Christian bigotry," Sanborn said. "I tend to agree with them."
Helix believes such criticism misses the mark. "I thought they had it exactly wrong ... The purpose of the Bill of Rights is to protect religion from government, not to protect government from religion."
Lisa P. White covers Concord and Pleasant Hill. Contact her at 925-943-8011. Follow her at Twitter.com/lisa_p_white.