A yearlong legal battle over Sussex County Council's use of The Lord's Prayer came to an end last week when both sides agreed to a deal that will allow council to substitute that prayer with Psalm 23.
Although council had been starting its meetings with The Lord's Prayer for decades, the practice became the subject of a federal lawsuit filed by four county residents last summer.
Two of the plaintiffs identified themselves as Christians and said they were offended by the practice because they felt the use of The Lord's Prayer "co-opts and debases" their faith, while the other two plaintiffs were non-Christians who said the practice "demeans and excludes" their beliefs, according to the suit.
In May, U.S. District Court Judge Leonard P. Stark ruled that the plaintiffs would likely win the case because council's consistent use of a Protestant version of The Lord's Prayer "constitutes government endorsement of the Christian faith," in violation of the U.S. Constitution's Establishment Clause.
Stark issued a preliminary injunction barring council from continuing to use The Lord's Prayer, but delayed imposing the order for 30 days in the hopes that the two sides could agree on a settlement that would preserve council's practice of opening meetings with a prayer that would not violate the state and federal constitutions.
Since then, council has opened its meetings with Psalm 23 from the Old Testament, a practice that the plaintiffs agreed they would not oppose, under certain conditions.
"The Supreme Court has found that prayers specific to one religion or deity are not acceptable," county attorney J. Scott Shannon said while explaining the legal difference between the two prayers. "Because The Lord's Prayer is from the New Testament, the judge in this case found that it was specifically Christian and therefore not permitted under the Constitution. Psalm 23, on the other hand, is a recognized prayer in Judaism and Christianity and also is acknowledged in Islam, so it meets the Supreme Court's test."
Council voted 3-2 on Sept. 11 to continue using Psalm 23 in place of The Lord's Prayer as part of a negotiated settlement agreement that resulted in the lawsuit's dismissal the following day.
County officials hailed the fact that the settlement allows council to continue its long-standing practice of beginning each meeting with a prayer.
"Prayer is an important part of the lives of so many Sussex Countians," Council President Michael Vincent (R-Seaford) said in a prepared statement. Vincent voted in favor of accepting the settlement, along with council members George Cole (R-Ocean View) and Joan Deaver (D-Rehoboth Beach).
"While this body represents all Sussex County residents, who come from a variety of faiths and walks of life, we firmly believe it is our right – and our duty – to honor the traditions of the past, and ask for divine guidance each week as we conduct the people's business," he said. "I am happy that both sides have reached an amicable resolution, one that respects the rule of law, but preserves council's prerogative to have a legislative prayer."
The executive director of the Washington D.C.-based Americans United for Separation of Church and State, which provided legal aid to the plaintiffs in the lawsuit, also expressed satisfaction with the settlement.
"I am glad to see that the council will stop reciting the Lord's Prayer," the Rev. Barry Lynn said in a prepared statement. "Government should never favor one faith over others. All citizens should feel welcome at governmental meetings, regardless of their views about religion."
However, County Councilman Sam Wilson (R-Georgetown), who joined Councilman Vance Phillips (R-Laurel) in voting against the settlement agreement, said he thought the county could have won the case in court.
"We received a lot of petitions from people urging us to go on with the case, and I tend to agree with that sentiment," he said. "I think Psalm 23 is powerful and I don't have a problem using it, but by not winning the case in court, it opens the door for others to sue. I don't think they could win, but even a frivolous lawsuit costs the county and the taxpayers more money."