Michelle Williams, was the city manager of Mt. Pleasant, Tennessee for only one full week when she tackled a controversial practice: prayer services during office hours of the employees at City Hall. For years, the local chaplain has been holding prayer services during work hours and Williams pointed out that such observations violated the separation of church and state. She got the local chaplain to agree to hold the daily prayers either before or after work hours. This manifestly reasonable request has led to opposition from some, including City Commissioner Bob Shackelford who wants the prayer sessions to continue.
Mt. Pleasant is a community of 4,500 residents conveniently located halfway between Nashville, TN and Huntsville, Alabama. It was founded in 1824. Williams is a former executive director of the Mt. Pleasant Community Development Corporation.
Williams has offered to accommodate prayer at any time before 8 a.m. or after 5 p.m. and said “we have no problem with them praying, it’s just they need to do it on their own time.” While the local chaplain agreed, there are those like Shackelford who want to see the praying sessions continue during regular hours, noting “[i]f the fire department and the police department are okay with it … it seems like an unwise decision to interfere if it’s okay with the department heads.”
It appears that Shackelford learned separation of church and state as a public safety issue. The fact that local officials support the entanglement with religion is nothing new. More entanglement cases involve majoritarian religion. It is unlikely that the daily prayer sessions involve Pagans or Rastafarians. The point is that, regardless of the fire safety aspects, such entanglement with religion violates the first amendment of the Constitution.
I would be interested in how Shackelford would accommodate other religions demanding to have prayer sessions in city hall during work hours since, as the Court noted in County of Allegheny v. ACLU Greater, Pittsburgh Chapter, 492 U.S. 573 (1989), it would not tolerate “practices that demonstrate the government’s allegiance to a particular sect or creed.”
Shackelford supported another candidate for manager in the 3-2 vote to hire Williams.
Williams should be commended rather than criticized for reaching an accommodation with the chaplain while maintaining the wall of separation. While separation principles are under attack, this is an example of how little it takes to resolve such problems. While this was not a case of a public official giving a state-approved prayer, the Court has stressed that “we think that the constitutional prohibition against laws respecting an establishment of religion must at least mean that, in this country, it is no part of the business of government to compose official prayers for any group of the American people to recite as a part of a religious program carried on by government.” Engel v. Vitale, 370 U.S. 421 (1962). Here citizens who came to City Hall would find employees engaged in a religious practice led by the local church. The advancement of that particular faith is unmistakable. What Williams did in her second week on the job was to balance the desire for prayer against the need for separation. I can’t wait to see what she tackles in her third week on the job.
Source: Columbia Daily Herald