Update: Local attorney: concern in lawsuit about the Lord's Prayer

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PARKERSBURG, W.Va. (WTAP) - Update: 8/8/2018 5:00 P.M.

In late July, the group "Freedom From Religion" filed suit in federal court, seeking to prohibit Parkersburg City Council from saying "The Lord's Prayer" before council meetings.

The group cites recent court decisions in charging the practice is unconstitutional.

Parkersburg attorney George Cosenza says the issue has to do with the reciting of what is considered a Christian prayer.

"A court will have to interpret whether the city council engaging in that behavior, even if it's before the meeting starts, violates the establishment clause," Cosenza says. "And I think it's going to get a little tricky there, when you specifically say that type of prayer at a public event."

Update: 8/1/2018 6:15 P.M.

The practice of nearly every local public board or city council contacted by The News Center is: the saying of what's known as a "generic" prayer, or one considered non-denominational, prior to the start of meetings.

And they all say participation is voluntary.

The president of the Wood County Board of Education said, with the current controversy involving Parkersburg City Council, there could be some changes, including replacement of a prayer with a moment of silence.

Vienna's mayor doesn't-at least right now-plan any changes.

"Obviously, if it goes before the court, and the court says you're not allowed to have prayer before your meeting starts, we'll have to address that at that time," said Mayor Randy Rapp. "But I have no plans to change anything with the structure that's been in place for the past several years."

Two city councils, Williamstown and Marietta, have not had a prayer prior to their meetings. The same holds true generally with local county commissions.

All of them, however, may take a "wait and see" approach, while the Parkersburg lawsuit makes its way through federal courts.

Update: 7/31/2018 2:25 P.M.

Parkersburg Mayor Tom Joyce and City Council President John Reed both say the Lord's Prayer "is not part of the council meeting", adding the prayer takes place before the regular meeting is called to order.

Reed says the practice "will continue until the court directs otherwise."


The Wisconsin-based Freedom From Religion Foundation has filed a lawsuit to stop the Parkersburg City Council from opening its meetings by reciting the Lord's Prayer.

In the lawsuit, filed on Tuesday in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of West Virginia, Charleston Division, FFRF seeks a a preliminary injunction, which would prohibit the Parkersburg City Council from continuing to open its meetings with Christian prayers led by council members.

FFRF's lawsuit states that each Parkersburg City Council meeting is opened by City Council members and city residents standing up and reciting the Lord's Prayer from Matthew 6:9-13, ending with a Christian doxology.

FFRF says two of its members, Parkersburg residents Eric Engle and Daryl Cobranchi, have attended several Parkersburg City Council meetings and both say they felt pressured to stand up and recite the Lord's Prayer.

Cobranchi stated he believes the practice of reciting the Lord's Prayer at Parkersburg City Council meetings “assigns to second-class status anyone who is not Christian.”

The lawsuit also states that, in a City Council meeting in September, 2017, City Councilman Eric Barber glared at attendees who sat during the Lord's Prayer. After the prayer, Barber turned on his microphone and shouted, "Amen."

Last year, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit held that sectarian legislator-led prayers were unconstitutional in the case Lund v. Rowan County, N.C.

In that case, the Fourth Circuit opinion said, “The principle at stake here may be a profound one, but it is also simple. The Establishment Clause does not permit a seat of government to wrap itself in a single faith.”

Last year, FFRF sued Mercer County Schools in West Virginia, seeking to end 75 years of Bible classes offered as electives in public schools there. The classes have since ended.

You can read and download the complete lawsuit filing in the "LAWSUIT: Freedom From Religion Foundation vs. City of Parkersburg" link in the "Related Links" section.