County Commissioner Dave Sullivan broke with precedent going back at least two decades when, elected chairman by his four fellow-Republican commissioners last fall, he started opening commission meetings with a prayer.
“We’ll go ahead with a moment of silence,” Sullivan now says. “We ask God to bless all the citizens of Flagler County and especially the men and women in the military around the world standing watch to maintain our freedom.” Previous commissioners had introduced the moment of silence with recognition of first responders and the military, but not “God” or a blessing of citizens.
“I added the fact that we’re seeking to bless all the citizens,” Sullivan said. “That’s kind of my feeling at all times, that once you’re an elected representative, we’re representing all the citizens, and we add the people who are first responders, that kind of thing, the military.” In a subtle rebuke to fellow-Commissioner Joe Mullins, who has taunted those who disagree with him to leave the county, Sullivan said: “We’re always thinking about all the citizens of Flagler County, not just the Republican citizens of Flagler County, so I just want to make that point. It may not be significant, but in my mind it’s significant.”
As for the addition of “God,” Sullivan said, it’s “for the same reason that I believe that we have a supreme being that we base our moral values on at some point. I mean it’s the same reason it’s in the Pledge of Allegiance, same reason it’s in Congress, they use the word god, when the chaplain starts the session, that kind of thing.”
The difference, however, is that Sullivan is starting the meeting with that invocation, as opposed to an invited member of the clergy. And the congressional prayers he refers to, for example, also include invocations by Rabbis, as on Jan. 10 and 29 this year or twice in December), by a Hindu on Nov. 14, a Native American the following day, a Cathollic a couple of days after that, and a Muslim Imam last May, among many others. No such diversity is contemplated at the Flagler commission.
“The term ‘God’ in this instance just kind of represents that there is something such as a supreme being, whatever you want to call it, that kind of arranges things,” Sullivan said. “It has nothing to do with anything else but me taking over as chairman and being able to say that at the beginning of a meeting.”
As when the school board chairman last August attempted to start meetings with a prayer from an invited pastor, breaking a five-decade precedent, Sullivan’s decision has caused a stir through emails to commissioners, in the press and social media, and through a few citizens’ comments at commission meetings. On Monday, one such comment, by Mike Cocchiola, a member of the Flagler-Volusia ACLU and the chairman of the local Democratic Party, led to a vigorous defense of the new practice by Sullivan and by Al Hadeed, the county attorney, who said that what “Sullivan did was way on the green side of that rule of law that permits him to make that statement. There is absolutely no doubt in my mind.”
Hadeed gave a brief summary of the state of the law on the matter, though he confused matters and did not provide commissioners a complete picture. In fact, the highest courts that have addressed the type of prayer Sullivan provides have split on the issue, one of them finding it legal, another finding it not. The U.S. Supreme Court has not ruled on the issue. In 2014, it ruled on prayers proffered by people other than elected officials–in other words, people who do not represent or speak for the government. No one is disputing that type of prayer in the present context. Nor is the County Commission providing that type of prayer, though it would be on more solidly constitutional ground if it did so (assuming it had the proper procedures in place).
Cocchiola on Monday spoke specifically to Sullivan’s role, as chairman, offering a prayer. Referring to emails, he said Americans United for the Separation of Church and State “have cautioned you that government officials in a government setting may not offer a prayer during a public session,” that it’s a violation of First and Fourteenth Amendment. “You may have a moment of silence, you may invite preachers, you may invite different people to give invocations. You may not do it [as a commissioner] because it is against the law. So you broke the law tonight when you offered an invocation during a moment of silence.”
Cocchiola referred to the $490,000 settlement earlier this month the Brevard County Commission had to approve with plaintiffs who had sued over commissioners’ discriminatory invitations to only certain preachers of certain Christian denominations to pray at the start of meetings. That commission had explicitly forbidden certain groups from offering prayers, a clear violation of current standards.
“What has happened here doesn’t even come close to approximating what the Brevard County Commission did,” Hadeed said. But nor had Cocchiola claimed it did. Cocchiola had specified that bringing in preachers wasn’t the issue. Rather, he was referring to the Brevard case as the sort of costly consequences a local government may face if and when it does potentially violate any part of church-state separation.
“With respect to what the chair uses,” Hadeed said of Sullivan’s practice, “that is called under the law a legislator prayer. Wide latitude is permitted in that prayer. Now, let me say, despite–and I’m talking about wide latitude from the Supreme Court of Florida and other appellate courts that have passed upon what’s called legislator prayer. That is distinguished from when the clergy comes up to the dias and makes the prayer. Legislative prayer is when it comes from you guys sitting there, whether individually, rotationally or however.”
In fact, the Florida Supreme Court, like the U.S. Supreme Court, have not addressed what Hadeed calls “legislator prayer.” As the attorney-consultant who briefed him on the matter noted, the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled on the issue in 2017, and found such prayer legal. But the prayer is “facially neutral regarding religion” but “generally Christian,” though the court specified that it rated among nine members of an elected panel–the Jackson County Commission in Michigan–who each prayed “based on the dictates of his own conscience.”
The 4th Circuit Court of Appeals also ruled on the same issue that year, and found it to be illegal. “The prayer practice served to identify the government with Christianity and risked conveying to citizens of minority faiths a message of exclusion,” the court ruled, in a case stemming from the county commission in Rowan County, North carolina. “In sum, the elected members of Rowan County’s Board of Commissioners composed and delivered their own sectarian prayers featuring but a single faith. They prevented anyone else from offering invocations. The Board’s prayer practice thus pushes this case well outside the confines of Town of Greece and indeed outside the realm of lawmaker-led prayer itself.” (The Town of Greece case was the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2014 finding that prayers by clergy members at government meetings is permissible.)
“The identity of the prayer-giver is relevant,” the judge writing for the 4th Circuit majority wrote. “From the perspective of the reasonable observer, this distinction matters. Such an observer is aware that phrases like ‘let us pray’ may be ‘for many clergy…almost reflexive.’ But when these words are uttered by elected representatives acting in their official capacity, they become a request on behalf of the state.”
Rowan County commissioner prayers were almost identical to those conducted by the Bunnell City Commission, where commissioners themselves each in turn provides an exclusively Christian invocation. Sullivan’s prayer is significantly more neutral, invoking only “God” in the same way that “God” is invoked in the opening Pledge of Allegiance.
But Hadeed in his analysis to the commission Monday conflated what the courts have ruled permissible–how members of the clergy unaffiliated with government may offer a prayer–with what they have not yet ruled on with the finality Hadeed projected (prayers offered by an elected official from the dais).
“What was articulated by Chair Sullivan does not come close to any line that is a line demarcated by the court–courts–as a danger or as a violation,” Hadeed said. “Specifically, there was no proselytizing of any faith. There was no advancing of any faith. There was no demeaning of any faith. It was a non-denominational statement, and actually the United States Supreme Court allows denominational expressions, and those are deemed valid. So what Mr. Sullivan did was way on the green side of that rule of law that permits him to make that statement. There is absolutely no doubt in my mind.”
Hadeed is right only in so far as if Sullivan had been a preacher invited by the commission, and even then, within the parameters set out by the cases cited. The “green side of that rule of law” is still undecided–either by the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals, which has jurisdiction over Flagler County, or by the Florida Supreme Court (or, for that matter, by any local or district courts.) Hadeed in essence was extrapolating–or assuming–that Sullivan’s prayer would be on the “green side.” It may well be, given the pronounced recent tilt of the federal judiciary in defense of such prayers. But the attorney’s absolutism was overstated, as a matter of law. And it did not take in consideration how, for example, a more zealous, more offensively exclusive commissioner might in future barge through the door Sullivan has merely cracked open.
“So there will be repercussions, because we will not let this go,” Cocchiola told commissioners Monday, hinting at coming legal action. “It is against the law. So I know personally I’m going to go out and see what organizations I can gather and then what legal avenues that we have to deal with this.” He added: “I’ve got to think, and other people have to think, you’re just simply going to ignore the law and do exactly what you please. That will not stand.”
I am personally offened by the prayer given by Sullivan, suggesting somehow that there is a “higher power” named God that is to look over me because of words he speaks is absolutely unacceptable and begins to unravel everything my community has been teaching our children.
Keep your nonsense to yourself and inside your own home or church, Not in public!
Legal action will be brought forth!
Please leave church and county government separated. I think Mr. Sullivan needs to say his prayers in the privacy of his own office.
And, I am a religious person but church and government needs to stay separated.
Art Schwartz says
Freedom “of” religion includes freedom “from” religion!
Appaling lack of U.S. History on display here – likely because of the vitriol against any notion of God
1. Go read the Declaration of Independence. You don’t have to read to far. Hint…its in the first paragraph.
2. Go read Amendment 1 to the U.S. Constitution – NO LAW (religion) prohibiting the free exercise thereof.
3. U.S. Supreme Court – Marsh V. Chambers (1983) & Town of Greece V. Galloway (2014) uphold exactly what the county is doing.
4. The U.S. Supreme Court opens its sessions with the proclamation “All persons having business before the Honorable, the Supreme Court of the United States, are admonished to draw near and give their attention, for the Court is now sitting. God save the United States and this Honorable Court!”
5. The “modern” National day of Prayer was established by Congress in 1952, however, it was first established by the 2nd continental Congress in 1775 —
and it goes on and on and on.
Since the Commissioners are bible thumping, it’s worth pointing out that even Jesus in the New Testament didn’t hold public prayer in high regard: “Enter into thy closet, and when thou hast shut the door, pray to the Father which is secret” (Matt.6:5-13)
Trailer Bob says
Error here. Back then they would hide when praying because of some of the harassment for praying in public at that time. Just some info to put it in it’s correct perspective.
Two words: James Madison.
Concerned Citizen says
All of our Commisioners are corrupt. And think they are above the law. They think they are irreplaceable and cannot be voted out. When will we wake up in this county and realize that change is sorely needed?
We need commisioners who will represent their constituents and not developers or special interests. We need commisioners who will uphold the law they were sworn to uphold.
As a public plea I implore ALL residents in this county to vote. Get these crroked politicians out of there. And get some people who are accountable to us.
Trailer Bob says
Thank you, I agree. As a former politician, I worked for the people, all of the people. And whether or not I am a believer in a God, my position had nothing to do with religion. Not that it bothers me, but we must also respect others positions on the matter.
Born and Raised Here says
As a life long resident of Flagler County, Prayer has always been a part of our ways here in Flagler County. It was always part of all the sports I participated in here in Flagler. We always prayer to begin our day at school. I agree with Commissioner Joe Mullins that perhaps those who disagree with prayer, probably aren’t from Flagler County, and should just leave.
Concerned Citizen says
@ Born and Raised Here,
As someone who spent over 15 years in the Airforce (4 active and 16 guard) then a large portion of my life in Public safety. I have no issue with public parayer. Every job I have held required an oath. And it was one I took seriously. I was raised Christian and still go to church. I also have a lot of respect for others beliefs.
My issue’s are with our own leadership who cannot seem to follow the laws they are supposed to uphold. And now because one is thumbing his nose at the public countless hours will be wasted with lawyers meeting and law suits. Instead of doing the job that’s needed done.
Lastly I’ll ask Joe Mullins and you, How exactly do you plan on getting rid of those of us who do not agree with your political views? I thought that was one of the great things about this country. The right to disagree politically. And not be escorted out on trains and buses.
Born and Raised Here says
I don’t consider prayer a political issue. Prayer is a person’s freedom of speech protected by the Constitution.
It should be performed anywhere and anytime by a person’s own prospective. It I want to hit my knees, I will hit my knees anywhere and anytime.
Mike Cocchiola says
Joe Mullins isn’t from Flagler County. He arrived in 2018 after being chased out of Georgia and bought his commission seat. After much bragging and bluster, he has nothing to show for his two years. Perhaps he should be the one to leave.
Born and Raised Here says
I know Joe is from Georgia, but to a Floridian Georgians are close kin to us Native Floridian. Most of us Native Floridians have kin folks from Georgia, not New York or New Jersey.
I dont give a rats ass if you all do back flips before the meetings try actually getting something ACCOMPLISHED and quit with the nonsense. SMH Geez
Palm Coast Resident says
Maybe no one should say anything ever, then no one will be offended ever…….
FB RESIDENT says
Isn’t that the truth! SMH
One Nation Under GOD! Mr. Sullivan keep God in all you say and do!!! Those those push to take God out of things are the first onen to pray to God at the time of need. We are one Nation under GOD, and God we are to trust!!!!!!
CB from PC says
What “AnOtherOpinion” stated is correct.
Outrage over a prayer invocation at a government meeting?
Look at how these elected officials mismanage tax dollars on unusable buildings, hackathons and stupid construction projects like roundabouts in the middle of highways.
Fill in your own…Now get outraged about something which actually matters.
Dedicated American says
Dedicated American says
Let’s not forget, Our country was formed under God. This country is falling
to socialism because God has been taken out of everything it once stood for. Our Constitution. Most of our corrupt politicians do not uphold our Constitution, the corrupt federal government dictating to our teachers, dumbing down our students, controlling our healthcare, giving into the politically correct, allowing illegals to enter illegally. Putting a burden on the Tax Payers. It goes on and on and voters just can’t see it. People have turned their backs on God. Without God, you can kiss our country goodbye. People please do not be sheep. Find the truth by reading. Look up AGENDA 21 and see what your politicians and the federal government have ready for all the tax payers in this country that have been the glue to this beautiful country.
May GOD CONTINUE TO BLESS AMERICA.
FB RESIDENT says
Vincent Lyon says
Let’s have the discussion. Let’s debate it. But I do t want my tax dollars paying for a costly lawsuit because Mr. Sullivan thinks if he doesn’t mention God whenever he opens his mouth then God won’t love him as much.
If you don’t want government running your religion, then don’t have religion run your government. When they entangle, both suffer.
Oh, and read that opinion letter Hadeed is relying on. In fact just read the last paragraph.
The SINGLES use of the word God is not a violation since it is not the regular practice of the Commission. I think they plan to make it regular practice so they render that opinion letter valueless.
Sheila Zinkerman says
Regarding the Moment of Silence that invokes god and a blessing, Commissioner Sullivan states “I added the fact that we’re seeking to bless all citizens…” I believe Commissioner Sullivan is sincere in his endeavor. However, I do not believe he will fulfill his ambition since invoking a god and a blessing is exclusionary to non-Theists and non-Christian citizens viewpoints. In “fact,” all citizens will not be “blessed” since many will reject a blessing from a god. Therefore, if Commissioner Sullivan wants to include all citizens in his Invocation, I suggest he stop invoking his exclusive god and start reciting an inclusive Invocation that will include all citizens – or stop the Invocation altogether. Here is one example of an inclusive Invocation to consider from Americans United for the Separation of Church and State:
OPERATION INCLUSION – SAMPLE INVOCATION
We come here to do the business of local government – the deliberative body that is closest to the people. As we gather, we are reminded that in our differences there is great strength. We do not all think the same way or believe the same things. Yet we are linked by our common humanity and our shared origin. When we work together to move our community forward in a spirit of mutual respect and common decency, we showcase what is best about our community, our state, and our nation.
We embrace many traditions. We are Christians, Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, humanists, atheists, agnostics, Wiccans, Pagans, unaffiliated, uncertain, and so many other things. We are straight, gay, and transgender. We are young and old and everything in between. We represent dozens of races and nationalities. We run the gamut from liberal to conservative, and some of us are a bit of both.
To be sure, we do not agree about everything. And we often feel fiercely protective of what we do believe. There is great passion in our beliefs—and rightly so.
But there is one thing on which we all agree: We share the goal of making our community the best place it can be. We unite here today around that noble aim and common purpose.
Praise Allah ! Praise Buddha!
That will put a stop to this
Florida Voter says
TL;DR Easy fix: a moment of silent prayer/meditation.
I see people on both sides “picking and choosing” which points they want to consider. Yes, on multiple occasions, Jesus spoke against praying in public for the sake of being seen. Paul also wrote that we should be in a constant state of prayer. These don’t need to be contradictory. If someone wants to lead a public prayer at a governmental meeting, then: a moment of silent prayer/meditation.
Yes, the founders of our nation were Christian. Culturally at the time, it was extremely rare and difficult to be a political leader if you were anything other than a white male Christian, but that doesn’t mean that our government was founded as a Christian government. In fact, one significant motivator in the founding of our country was to break away from government sponsored religion.
Some denominations of Christianity have a closed communion table and closed prayer. They believe that only a true “child of God” can pray and only members of their specific religion are true children of God. For them, a prayer that they are forced to participate in but is being led by someone not of their denomination might be worse than useless, it might be seen as a betrayal of their beliefs. Who is to say that they are wrong (hint: Jesus)?
In this country, we are guaranteed freedom of religion. This includes someone forcing us to take part in religious activities … like prayer at a public governmental meeting. If the commissioners want to pray before the meeting, they should do it together in a space other than where the meeting is being held or before the room is open to the public.
I honestly cant even believe this is what came of the meeting… literally nothing of importance was accomplished. We live in a world where all we do is tip toe around trying not to offend anyone. Put on your big girl and big boy pants and GET OVER IT.
the truth says
Hey Born and Raised here do your research Joe Mullins is not from Flagler County.
Trailer Bob says
He is from Georgia, as he told me when he was running for office. This is not a big secret. Research works wonders.
Why are people who doesn’t believe in God complain about prayers?
They must know the Bible is real or they wouldn’t be complaining.
Jane Gentile-Youd says
The biggest issue in my unprofessional, common sense opinion, is that our county Attorney is incompetent and his actions and inaction have already caused millions of taxpayers dollars wasted, compromised and given away. Dave Sullivan, as a commissioner has a right to listen to his attorney if he chooses. Unfortunately his county attorney is the county’s biggest liability in my opinion.
. He refuses and has refused for over a month to release public record after multiple request: , he re-wrote the Plantation Bay water theft with our money and refuses to give me dates when the commission voted to create an Enterprise Fund with my money without my notice or consent – he gave away Captains Barbeque for less money a month than a one night stay in a hotel for the Daytona 500, ( and allowed 20 additional illegal seats) ;
Hadeed condoned a $1.3 million purchase of a building that had no running water or electricity at time of contract date ( 2 flashlights were provided for the commissioners to do a walk through – it was too dark of course for them to see the bats or bat drippings, he didn’t have a copy of the Sears contract in his office 2 weeks before closing.
Hadeed needs to go and Commissioner Sullivan you should stop hanging around with Mullah Mullins. He too gives you bad advice in my opinion.
Jane you’ve wasted a great deal of taxpayer money yourself and you weren’t even able to manage getting elected. You bombard local government with your information requests crippling staff so that’s all they have time to do is fulfill your demands. Nothing is to your liking and you seem to have had numerous run-ins with just about every single governmental office in the county. Your personal friends that are employed at the county have had just as much to do with those building purchases as anyone else you’ve named.
The Commissioners are acting like petulant children and deserve a “time out” for allowing this to become an issue at all. Just stop it.
Jane Gentile-Youd well said and well written, time for this County to clean house.
My analysis and my count of the comments so far show (and I hope the Commissioners are also taking note)… 15 are anti-prayer at Commissioner meetings, 6 are pro-prayer, and 2 seem neutral. And the winner is?
As I have stated Previously, people might find the attached cite informative:
Clearly the Supreme Court does not feel sectarian prayer is out of bounds or illegal.
I note both the Court and Congress begin their sessions with prayed.
Please read the cite!
CB from PC says
Maybe a little more “God” in schools and other tax supported “Public Institutions” will cause people to have a conscience.
And to Mike C., muster your local Dems to take a stand on the kind of crap in the link below. It is Nationwide. No outrage from The Jacksonville Democrat Party Chapter either on the punk who drove his van into the Trump supporters.
People seem to confuse the concept of separation of Church and State. The Separation of Church and State does not mean religion cannot exist in government but only that government can’t force religion upon the people. If you don’t want to pray, then don’t. I’m atheist, and public prayer doesn’t bother me whatsoever. The only people bothered are those looking to attack others for their faith. Public prayer is completely inconsequential.
Diane J Cline says
Our country was founded with the belief that “separation of church and state” is crucial for a well run, healthy, fair government. This isn’t about free speech, what your family is used to, or personal beliefs…it’s about taking care of business without bias. If you want to pray…pray to yourself! Why do you need someone putting words in your head? The Commission isn’t church…its not their job to tend to your morals. I know what it feels like to be treated differently for my beliefs and it’s not pretty. Seriously, you guys are supposed to be smarter than us…act like it. If we can’t trust you to properly run a meeting how can we trust you to run the county!!!!