Request for prayer site stirs debate

Johnson

SUMMERVILLE -- Supporters say the request was benign enough: Open a town meeting room for an hour each week so a group can pray for the community, its government and its churches.

But Elder Edward Johnson's petition fell square in the lap of the age-old debate about separation of church and state.

Johnson appealed to Summerville Town Council this week, the 11th area government or police organization he has approached. A town policy doesn't allow the use of its facilities for political or religious meetings.

"I think that's wrong legally. I think it's wrong morally," Councilman Walter Bailey said.

Councilman Aaron Brown asked council members to think through the request.

"What if next week someone comes in who is Muslim? Shinto? Hindu? Voodoo? Will you still feel the same way?" Brown asked. Later, Brown told

The Post and Courier he didn't want to comment because of the nature of the issue, but said, "I'm a constitutionalist. I think we should follow separation of church and state, and that's about all I have to say about that."

Johnson, pastor of Friendship Inspirational Church in Lincolnville, began appealing to local governments in 2007 to let him establish the prayer network, after a young man was shot to death down the street from his home and church. He heard on television about a Massachusetts church that brought together a network after a shooting and claimed no murders had happened since in the community.

Similar prayer networks have cropped up across the country.

Johnson said he now has networks praying in nine local government facilities, from Charleston County and North Charleston to Awendaw and St. George. Only Goose Creek has turned him down, he said. He wants to extend it to every government in the three counties around Charleston. No offering is collected, he said; groups are led by volunteer prayer captains from the community.

It's a hot-button issue for groups such as Americans United for Separation of Church and State.

"He can pray for the local government in his church. It's two sides of the same coin," said Monte Knight of the local AUSCS chapter. "Because there's no official state church, churches are vital in this country."

Local ministers say they agree with the separation concept but not with that interpretation.

"We know what the Constitution says about that. But we claim to be a religious nation. We have it on our coin. What we live and what we say are sometimes not the same thing," said Dr. Clinton Brantley, pastor of St. Matthew Baptist Church in North Charleston.

Brantley served as an Air Force chaplain, and groups have tried to have that post removed because it was "government- sponsored religion," he said. But service people need the spiritual guidance.

"We need to look at the whole man, the total man. I think we ought to be able to pray whenever. I believe that's one of our God-given rights," he said.

The Rev. Rob Dewey of Coastal Crisis Chaplaincy regularly works with government organizations. As long as the government facility is open to any group that asks, he doesn't see a problem. Governments should not impose state issues on religions, he said, but not to have religions involved in making our communities a better place would be neglectful and harmful to the communities.

"I think we need to have more people praying for our towns, our communities and our state," he said.

There was a long silence after Brown's comment at the Summerville council Finance Committee meeting this week. Councilman Mike Dawson said he thinks the facilities should be open.

"I think we ought to quit turning our backs on the people who come and want to use the facilities they're paying for," Councilman Ricky Waring said. With Brown opposing the move, the committee voted, 5-1, to waive the policy for Johnson's group.

Town Attorney Mark Stokes is working on a revision of the policy.

Reach Bo Petersen at 937-5744 or bpetersen@postandcourier.com.