Unwelcome to Brentwood: Maryland Town's Sectarian Prayer Policy Sends Message of Religious Exclusion, Says Americans United Lawsuit

By Brown, Simon | Church & State, April 2013 | Go to article overview

Unwelcome to Brentwood: Maryland Town's Sectarian Prayer Policy Sends Message of Religious Exclusion, Says Americans United Lawsuit


Brown, Simon, Church & State


It's not often that a devout Roman Catholic and former nun is offended by a Christian prayer, but that is exactly how Dolores Pomerleau felt when she attended meetings of the Brentwood, Md., Town Council.

Pomerleau, who served as a nun between 1963 and 1975, is quite active in her community. She is chair of the Brentwood Fire House Committee, which offers advice to the town council on upkeep for a fire-house building.

As a result, she has attended council meetings for four years and said each session began with the recitation of the Lord's Prayer.

"I'm offended by the town council's practice," said Pomerleau, who still attends weekly church services. "It certainly excludes people from other religious traditions and no religious tradition."

On Feb. 26, Pomerleau and another Brentwood resident, Anne Christine Warden, enlisted the help of Americans United to challenge Brentwood's prayer practice in federal court.

It's not a step they took lightly. In fact, litigation was filed only after city officials ignored warning letters from AU's Legal Department.

According to the complaint, every meeting begins with Mayor Roger Rudder leading the Lord's Prayer. (Vice Mayor Aneeka Harrison leads the devotional in Rudder's absence.) Council members rise, clasp their hands and bow their heads during the recitation. Those in the audience are asked to stand or join in.

This sectarian practice, says Americans United, clearly violates the U.S. Constitution.

"Government meetings should be welcoming to all residents, not merely to those who share the faith of their elected officials," said AU Executive Director Barry W. Lynn. "In favoring one religious tradition over others, the town council is acting in an unfair as well as unconstitutional manner."

Pomerleau, a fouder of the grassroots social justice organization The Quixote Center, first challenged the official invocations in December 2011. Her complaint was not well received. Mayor Rudder stated that he "takes umbrage" at the "attack on the Lord's Prayer" and affirmed his belief that the council should continue reciting it, according to the meeting minutes.

Council Member Nina Young offered some pushback to Rudder's position, noting that she had received multiple complaints from residents about the opening prayer and suggested that the town look into the situation. Vice Mayor Harrison even suggested that the council vote on the issue.

Despite those sentiments, however, no vote was ever taken on the matter.

Rudder apparently doesn't respect other viewpoints, Pomerleau said, and is the most ardent defender of the governmental invocations. He and allies on the council continue to recite the prayers with fervor.

"They consider themselves to be Christian, and if you don't like the prayers you can leave," Pomerleau said. "They have such a strong mentality about being Christian, that to them, there are no other religions. That's my interpretation, anyway."

Plaintiff Warden, who identifies as a Buddhist and serves as an interfaith minister, has had a similar experience with town council prayers. Warden works with the Gateway Arts District Community Development Corporation, which promotes neighborhood development and the arts in the Brentwood area. (The town, which has about 3,000 residents, is just north of Washington, D.C.)

Warden has attended council meetings, most recently, in February when she went to a session that addressed issues related to the Gateway Arts District. That meeting featured the Lord's Prayer, which she said is widely recognized as one of the most important Christian prayers. …

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