Sunday, June 23, 2024

Public comments, invocations on council agenda

Staff Writer | June 4, 2022 1:08 AM

COEUR d’ALENE — The Coeur d’Alene City Council will meet Tuesday and consider a new policy on accepting public comments, and will discuss its long-standing practice of an opening prayer before each meeting.

The council may limit comments to Coeur d’Alene residents only, Kootenai County residents only, or leave things as they are and accept comments from anyone wishing to address the council.

Council members will also look at limiting comments to items that are on the agenda only. As it stands, during the public comment period, a person can bring forth any subject they like.

A proposed policy on comments was requested by Mayor Jim Hammond. The city has had numerous people who don’t live in Coeur d’Alene offer their opinions on everything from American Rescue Plan Act funds to growth issues and art commission members. Some of those meetings have led to heated verbal exchanges and outbursts from people.

Councilman Dan Gookin said at the May 23 general services committee meeting he opposed limiting public comment.

“I think this is wrong. It’s a bad move,” he said.

Councilwoman Kiki Miller said, “I almost agree with Dan, but not quite.”

She said it should be discussed by the full council and there should be some guidelines and policies on public comment.

“Limitations for public comment is difficult, in my view,” she said.

Councilman Woody McEvers said he liked the current practice of letting anyone speak during public comment time.

“It doesn’t seem like anything is real pressing, other than a few times people get a little out of sorts with us, but I think the mayor controls it real well,” McEvers said. “It’s called respect. That's why we're in Idaho, isn’t it?”

The council is also scheduled to discuss whether to continue having invocations before its meetings.

The Kootenai County Ministerial Association has long handled the scheduling of pastors, all Christians, to give the opening prayer. The city recently took over the scheduling to give other faith leaders a chance to participate.

Pastor Paul Van Noy, president of the association, said he believed the city was opening itself to legal challenges if, for example, a witch or satanist wanted to give the invocation and was denied that opportunity.

City attorney Randy Adams, in an analysis, wrote, “The City’s current process for inviting person to give a prayer or invocation before City Council meetings is nondiscriminatory, and the guidelines developed by staff, which prohibit the denigration of other religions and proselytization is consistent with Supreme Court precedent.”

"I do not believe that Pastor Van Noy’s concerns are justified from a legal standpoint," Adams wrote Friday.

Adams wrote that invocations before daily sessions of Congress have been the custom since 1789. He wrote that according to a survey, 37 state legislative houses have guidelines for delivering invocations, while 46 have no guidelines at all, including both houses in Idaho.

“In 2014, the U.S. Supreme Court issued its opinion in Town of Greece v. Galloway, upholding the Constitutionality of invocations and prayers before public meetings in the face of a challenge that they violate the First Amendment,” Adams wrote.

Adams wrote that in the Galloway case, the Supreme Court held that in “light of the unambiguous and unbroken history of more than 200 years, there can be no doubt that the practice of opening legislative sessions with a prayer has become part of the fabric of our society.”

The court also held that it would not dictate the content of those prayers.

“Once it invites prayer into the public sphere, government must permit a prayer giver to address his or her own God or gods as conscience dictates," according to the Supreme Court opinion.

Adams on Friday wrote, "I believe that the City could also deny someone the opportunity to use the time set aside for an invocation to 'cast a spell' on the Council or, for that matter, to use that time for a speech which has a purpose other than that recognized by tradition and historical practice. In any event, the City does not discriminate and has not rejected anyone who signed up to give an invocation."

The City Council is scheduled to meet at 6 p.m. Tuesday in the Library Community Room.