Rejecting exhortations from nearly two dozen people, there will be no overt, vocal prayer at Palm Coast City Council meetings, though room for prayer in all forms and for all creeds will continue, as it always has, for individuals who choose to pray, whether overtly before meetings or quietly during meetings or during the moment of silence.
The council itself will continue its recently instituted moment of silence, extending it to a full minute.
But when Council member Ed Danko made a motion to add a prayer at the beginning of meetings and workshops Tuesday evening, he got no second. It was the end of a two-month debate that culminated with lengthy discussions, two dozen public comments, and the re-assertion, for the council, of law.
“It’s not my job when I’m here to preach. It’s my job to prophesize through my actions and my words and my kindness and respect to others,” Council member Theresa Pontieri, who had initiated the moment of silence, said. “The way that I keep God in our government is to abide by the golden rule, is to treat others the way that I would like to be treated. It’s the way that I speak to others, the way that I show respect to others and the way that I treat others, especially those that I disagree with.”
She spoke at length, describing her role as a private person of deep faith and a public servant. “I personally would much rather spend our taxpayer dollars on deputies fixing our roads and improving our parks than on worrying about constitutionally administering a policy that can inadvertently land us in an expensive lawsuit,” Pontieri said. “As an attorney, I know that our council has done a great job drafting the policy but I know for certain that the moment of silence is constitutionally sound, legally defensible, inclusive. It does not force me or anyone else to betray their faith.” She urged against public grandstanding.
The lawless pious didn’t waste time, puncturing what was supposed to be a moment of silence after the Pledge of Allegiance at the beginning of the meeting, a group in the audience broke in with a loud prayer–the fervently Christian and patriarchal Lord’s Prayer–as the council and their attorney stood facing the flag.
It was an unprecedented show of contempt for the moment of silence, at a council meeting or any meeting of a local government body, and was no different than if hooligans had interrupted with noise or gibberish. It was intended as a protest, though the council had yet to vote on whether to start its meetings with an invocation or not.
Mayor David Alfin didn’t tolerate the disrespect for long. “Thank you, please take your seats,” he said, after taking his time taking his, “our moment of silence has concluded.” Council member Ed Danko kept standing, hands joined in prayer: the rule-breakers were his people. He had summoned them with an invocation of his own, sending out communications before the meeting that included a request that, “when you attend your place of worship, please ask the leaders of your congregation to announce and encourage all to join us at City Hall and show their support for Prayer.” Places of worship are barred by law from meddling in politics, though Palm Coast now appears to be a sanctuary city for politicking pastors.
There were a few hoots in the audience, as if Alfin were the hooligan, before the mayor took up the business of the evening, moving the agenda’s proclamations, like a buffer, ahead of what he must have sensed would be a calvary of a business meeting.
At two previous meetings, proponents and opponents of overt prayer had made their case to the council, with more civility and respect than Tuesday evening’s proponents.
Both times, several members of the council, including its most privately pious–who include Alfin and Council member Theresa Pontieri–expressed skepticism at a prayer policy as it would have to be applied under law, because it could potentially open the door to theatrics.
The policy would apply to workshops as well as business meetings. Those delivering invocations would have to be religious leaders, but no city or county residents describing themselves as religious leaders could be excluded, no matter how obscure the religion. So the “religious leader” designation was a clause without meaningful strictures, as those would be unconstitutional. In the absence of a person willing to deliver an invocation. the council would stick to a moment of silence. And the clerk would not be required to send out invitations to houses of worship, to “help avoid any potential claims that the city was somehow contacting some congregations and not others,” City Attorney Neysa Borkert said.
Current, controlling law states that “there can be no exclusion based on the nature of the belief,” Borkert said, citing the case that led to that decision: a county commission’s members had purposefully excluded specific types of beliefs, from Wiccans to deists to atheists. The 11th Circuit Court of Appeals, which has jurisdiction over Florida, found that to be unconstitutional. “Once you open the door to one, you have to open the door to all,” Borkert said.
“It’s going to be imperative that it be exercised in a manner that allows for any religious congregation to send a leader to come in and do the invocation policy, whether or not you agree with that religious belief or not,” Borkert said of the proposed policy as drafted. “They will have the right under the Establishment Clause to come in and be an invocation speaker. We will not be able to prohibit them from doing so.” That means if atheists, Wiccans or Wahhabists wanted to deliver an invocation, the council could not stand in the way. “The only standard is that you confirm that they’re within the city of Palm Coast and Flagler County,” Borkert said.
Even though the policy states that the person delivering the invocation must be a “religious leader,” the policy leaves those terms undefined, leaving open the possibility, as Alfin noted, for anyone to self-ordain by way of the internet, and become a religious leader. “There hasn’t been any case law that specifically stated no, this is not a religion for this purpose,” Borkert said. That includes religions of one. “There is no threshold on that.”
“If some moron in a rusted out double wide puts on a set of horns and wants to come up here and preach the devil, we just have to roll over and say, okay, or can we use a little bit of judgment?” Danko asked.
Not if the city doesn’t want to be sued, Borkert said.
All of those elements only added to council members’ reluctance to change a quarter century of practice at the beginning of city council meetings. Then there were the personal reflections of council members.
“So I’m gonna make a comment because I can’t hold back,” Alfin said, pointedly addressing Danko: “And vice mayor, with all due respect and differences, listen to my comment here because this one, I’m going to open up for a moment and go to a place that I rarely ever go to in public. So when I respect a moment of silence following our Pledge of Allegiance, I pray for a young man who gave his life and his partner’s life to put bad people in jail,” he said, referring to his own son, an FBI agent shot and killed in the line of duty while serving a warrant. Alfin said he likewise prayed for a first-responder victim of the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in 2018, and several others along those lines. “I use that time with great, great respect and it means everything to me now. I am only one city council member. I feel the moment of silence is incredibly important. But again, I can only speak for myself.”
Contrary to repeated claims, including many made by members of the public Tuesday evening (such as the false claim that “the Bible was removed from our public schools”), prayer even in public spaces such as government meetings or public schools is alive and well for anyone who chooses to exercise it, as long as the government doesn’t sponsor it or the person praying doesn’t turn it into a disruptive spectacle. School students may pray on their own or in groups any time they choose outside of instructional time. People attending council or other government meetings may do likewise, even during meetings, as long as it’s not disruptive: there has never been a prohibition on prayer. But the government agency itself may not be its purveyor (though governments like the Bunnell City Commission routinely violate that law).
Still, speaker after speaker made inaccurate claims, including one conflating the nation’s laws with “the lord” (or another claiming that his family came to America 104 years before the first settlement at Jamestown “because of religious persecution”). More than two dozen people addressed the council, all but two in favor of public prayer, many citing the “In God We Trust” logo on currency or other forms of religious expression in public spheres as justification for prayers at meetings.
When one of the speakers noted that “the word ‘god’ does not appear anywhere in the text of the United States Constitution,” a factual statement, the crowd again made noise, causing the mayor to intervene and requiring the speaker’s time to be paused: “Everyone, please be respectful,” the mayor told the very people whose call for prayer was framed in invocations of respect, “especially with the subject matter that you’re bringing to the podium tonight. These folks listened to your comments. Please with the same respect, listen to their comments.”
Council member Nick Klufas invited advocates of prayer to show up every Tuesday and devote their own three minutes of public comment time to a prayer, if they so wish. That has never happened in the council’s history. But he cautioned against risking taxpayer money on needless lawsuits. “This is going to open up a bag of worms if it were to be passed,” he said, supporting a moment of silence.
Danko compared a moment of silence to “a moment to silence us all” before somehow blaming the lack of prayer for Budweiser “putting transsexuals on cans of beer” (a bigoted attack on trans individuals no different than if Danko had complained about Budweiser putting the Notorious B.I.G.’s image on its cans) or “a prosecutor going after a former president and he’s weaponized our judicial system,” a reference to the day’s arrest of former President Trump as a result of New York District Attorney Alvin Bragg’s investigation. Danko did not, however, blame a lack of prayer for Trump tendering hush money to a porn star, a Playboy model and a doorman for his predatory infidelities.
Danko soon made his motion to approve the invocation proposal. It was followed by what Danko himself wryly called “another moment of silence.”
“Hearing no second, the motion fails,” Alfin said. There were loud grumbles and calls of “cowards” from the congregation as it exited swiftly, leaving a nearly empty room. Pontieri called for a more defined moment of silence to be “at least 30 seconds,” which would make it the longest and most defined moment at local board. There was no consensus. Pontieri then specified that the moment should be a minute long. Danko disagreed. The vote was 4-1 for a full minute’s silence, similar to the minimum minute’s silence (and maximum of two) now in place at the beginning of instructional days in public schools. Students are free to use the moment as they choose, as long as they’re silent.
- Palm Coast Council’s Proposed Prayer Policy Draws Out Opponents, Who Urge Silence
- In Riveting Discussion on Prayers at Meetings, Palm Coast Council Defers to ‘Neutral’ Caution
- Starting Palm Coast Council Meetings with ‘Invocation’ Would Be Unnecessarily Divisive
Connie Sparks says
Take Prayer out of everything!! Then see what happens.
JOE D says
They’re NOT taking out prayer, they are allowing a moment of silence for each participant to have their OWN moment of prayer in silence as they choose.
And if PRAYERS were OVERTLY allowed ( contrary to the laws our country was founded upon : the SEPARATION of CHURCH and STATE), Whose prayers would they be? Hindu? Muslim? Jewish? Catholic? Baptist?
As a DEVOUT lifelong practicing ROMAN CATHOLIC, I would like nothing better than to have God brought into the decision making of our governing bodies.
However, to avoid expensive TAXPAYER funded lawsuits over government and religious separation, I think the “moment of silence,” for each participant to ponder for themselves, is the best option for a supposedly neutral GOVERNMENT body.
Ms Pontieri summed it up best, when she alluded to her religious convictions being played out in her public services, her treatment of others, and her dedicated offer to serve the community. Her convictions couldn’t be any better exemplified than THAT!
For some Commission members to incite a protest in a public GOVERNMENT (not religious) meeting is a POOR example for the community of how Government regulations (ie: separation of Church and State), should upheld for the good of EVERYONE in the community.
I APPLAUD the final decision of the Commission!
Michael Cocchiola says
We’d stop fighting and go back to governing.
Sherri S-Sanders says
Yes! A victory for all PC residents to use the moment of silence as intended and giving respect to All religions.
And for you Danko, I am going to raise a Budweiser just for you! Bigotry and Racism have No Home Here In Palm Coast, Flagler County, Florida, the USA or anywhere!
We the people are tired but will never give up the fight for Equality & Religious Freedom.
I’m glad the council did the right thing. Sometimes even a blind squirrel finds an acorn….
Danko is an idiot and couldn’t define what being a Christian is if his life depended on it. And he sure doesn’t know anything about living a Christian existence. Run for county commissioner. Your days on the council are numbered and I don’t give you much chance at the county level put please try. I’ll enjoy voting against you!!!
David Schaefer says
Thank You and hopefully everyone remember he is a MEGA and trump lover…..
The Geode says
Why would there be a need to pray at a City Council meeting or a sports event, to begin with? It’s not like any deity is going to change anybody’s mind or alter anything meaningful to you without pissing off the person sitting next to you …unless said deity prefers YOU or “your team” is more valuable to them than everyone else. If that’s the case, how unfair would that be and who would want to spend “eternity” with a deity that plays favorites like your family, friends, and bosses did against you when you were on earth? Leave your religion at home and allow your religious beliefs to show in public – you don’t have to say it if you live it and show it
Nephew Of Uncle Sam says
“Council member Theresa Pontieri, who had initiated the moment of silence, said. “The way that I keep God in our government….””.
How about just keeping YOUR god out of OUR Government, like the founding fathers intended.
Bla bla bla
For Real says
Why does Florida think religion and government agencies are all combined? Do churches have government meetings before the pray? Ask other states if their city council meetings start out with prayers and the answer will be NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO.
Oh Boy, a whole minute to silently pray for death to all progressives and any Bud Light drinkers.
Michael Cocchiola says
Hey, Butch, you bigot. You are the reason we get up in the morning and fight for tolerance, compassion and inclusion.
JOE D says
Wow BUTCH….how unsurprisingly WHITE, CHRISTIAN, NATIONALISTIC of you!
But the Constitution DOES gives you the right to pray for ANYTHING your heart desires ….so GO FOR it!
Have a BLESSED Day!
Michael Cocchiola says
You mean have a non-violent day.
JOE D says
Technically in keeping with the “RELIGION Neutral”Constitution, I should have said Have a GREAT DAY!”
James Mejuto says
What do I think?: Folks, the 1st Amendment of the Constitution of our country “shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion.” Religion has no place at all in the functioning of government or education in this country or anywhere else!
If that A…hole, Danko wants to pray, then let him do it silently- no one’s going to stop him but don’t force others at meetings to pray, out of intimidation.
Anyone who wants to pray out-loud . . . go to church!
Jim in Flagler says
I heard about the meeting and went partly out of curiousity, but mostly to support those calling for separation of church and state. I realize, thankfully, that most folks reading this local journalism agree with separation of church and state. And I am extremely impressed by the council members who stood up to the misguided rants of most of the citizens present. Especially those members I know lean right, but bow to reason on this issue. I want to make a few points though.
1. Where are all of you readers who believe in separation of church and state when you are called to support it? I’m not even a Palm Coast resident (I live in Flagler), but I went to show support.
2. I truly believe that most of the citizen speakers are part of the loud, vocal MINORITY, but they make the MOST noise. People need to wake up, stand up, be heard. I’ve read that 7% of the national population is EXTREME right, 7% EXTREME left. That leaves 86% of us are somewhere in the middle. (Granted, those numbers skew right in our community.) As someone once said, the only thing necessary for evil to prevail is for good people to do nothing. (Sorry for using the word “evil” as it was commonly used last night. I’m just quoting. Let’s say “bad ideas”.)
3. Perhaps those speakers were well-meaning, but it did not appear so. The rudeness and lack of decorum at the very beginning, during what was to be a moment of silence and all of them saying the Our Father, demonstrated exactly why it needs to be a moment of silence! These are the same people that are banning books and bullying everyone who doesn’t align with them. Intimidation is their friend. Golden Rule be damned. Enough. I’ll admit it was with some trepidation that I left the meeting with my Americans United “Separation of church and state” badge. These people cannot respect differences, and they seem willing to justify a lot in the name of God.
4. Perhaps some of them are knowledgeable, but there was so much ignorance expressed as truth… Most claimed to know about history and theology, but clearly had no idea of facts. Anyone with a computer can easily find that the word “God” was first placed on a 2-cent coin during the Civil War, but it didn’t appear on our bills until 1954, as was stated, part of the “red scare”, and that has continued as a reason to single out non-believers and other-believers ever since. Peaking once during the Moral Majority times, and certainly resurging now. The founding fathers repeatedly called for separation of church and state. The Constitution only refers to the Creator regarding to inalienable rights. The emphasis was on rights, not God, Allah, Yahweh, Mother Earth, Sun Spirit, or big bang author. I could go on and on… (Also, as stated, “under God” was added to the Pledge around the same time–1954.) We are a country based on principles, not one faith.
5. As stated in this article, I was sickened that the councilmember on my left evoked the current problems the former president is having with a lack of God in this country! To cheers of the crowd… I don’t think he was claiming that it was Godlessness in Trump. I can only understand that in the current environment he sees this as his platform to run for higher office, and is gunning for state or national office, to be like Renner, MTG, Jim Jordan et al… It had no place in local community politics.
Bottom line–thank you council, for keeping hope alive. I can’t say my faith is restored, but it is not hopeless.
Jim in Flagler
Jim in Flagler: That was nicely stated.
Good. Keep religion out of politics. says
They just don’t want a non-Christian to ask for a moment of prayer. Those are the theatrics they want to avoid. But prayer has zero business in politics. I love everyone saying our Founding Fathers thought religion and politics should mix. Lol. Nooooo. They were adamant they should not. Why exactly do you think they fled England and we had the revolutionary war? It wasn’t because this land was prettier. It was to escape a theocracy. My word….
My opinion is if civilization is to survive it’s best we get over the feeling that “my God is better than your God” and let folks pray as they wish. Keep Church and State separate. Let’s hope we can all learn to get along, good Lord willing and the creek don’t rise.
Sheila Zinkerman says
If you were looking for guidance on Christian Bible verses, you should have visited the Palm Coast City Hall entrance during a 04-04-23 council meeting vote on praying in government buildings; at the entrance you would have seen two activists holding two signs promoting the separation of church and state and heard a flock of White Christian Nationalists hurling the top ten of Christian Bible verses at them. Little did they know, one of the activists attended a Quaker school in rural PA and easily matched their woke Christian Bible verses with woke Christian Bible verses of her own.
The two signs that triggered the Christian Bible verses clearly read:
I Prefer My Church and State Separate
National Day of Reason – First Thursday in May
Affirming Our Commitment To The Constitutional Separation of Religion And Government. @americanhumnist
A Christian follower also told us that Palm Coast is now being run by the Hand of the Lord Jesus Christ because “70%” of residents voted for Donald Trump. They also said that only Christians are welcome in the city and eventually all others will be gone.
Luckily, the Hand of the Lord Jesus Christ in Palm Coast was washed in righteousness on 04-04-23. The motion to add prayer in a government building failed.
My husband, a Christian, told me (I’m not a Christian) that a Christian teaches by example, that religion is not forced or favored.
Spoken by a claimed Christian: “If some moron in a rusted out double wide puts on a set of horns and wants to come up here and preach the devil, we just have to roll over and say, okay, or can we use a little bit of judgment?” Danko asked.
Leave it at home, people, and hopefully, your home is not a “…rusted out double wide…” and you are not a …”moron…” according to this man. He, alone, is a reason not to convert.
Jim from Flagler says
Does anyone see the irony that if some white Christian nationalist insurrectionist “puts on a set of horns and wants to come up here and preach” Godliness, it’s okay with this guy? That’s exactly what happened! I guess that’s okay because he’s on God’s side… crazy.