Some new Democrats want DuPage County Board to cease prayers at meetings

Some of the new Democrats on the DuPage County Board are calling on the panel to end its decadeslong tradition of inviting religious leaders to conduct invocations before regular board meetings.

Board member Dawn DeSart says she's a churchgoing Christian who believes "with my whole heart" in the power of prayer.

But the Aurora Democrat said she's "disturbed by the primarily Christian prayers" at the beginning of county board meeting. She said there should be a separation of church and state.

So DeSart is requesting that the board discontinue the invocation. She's hoping the issue will be discussed in the coming months.

"This is the right thing to do on behalf of our Muslim, Jewish, Sikh, atheist, agnostic, (and other) constituents," DeSart said. "It is my opinion that we, as an all-inclusive board, do not need an invocation prior to each meeting."

Officials say there's been an invocation at board meetings since at least 1973, which is when the county started keeping copies of agendas. The practice may have started earlier.

Persuading the Republican majority board to end the tradition might be difficult.

This week, Republican board member Robert Larsen said he wants the invocation at county meetings to continue.

Larsen said the board has welcomed members of every faith to give the invocation. At the same time, no one in the audience is obligated to participate.

"We are a community that respects faith," the Wheaton resident said. "I think it is important to continue that tradition here in the county."

Still, Democratic board member Sheila Rutledge said the practice excludes those who are nonreligious.

"Everybody has a right to turn to their own spiritual self," said Rutledge, of Warrenville. "But I think by doing the invocations, there is nobody to speak for the agnostic, atheist."

Another Democratic board member, Mary FitzGerald Ozog of Glen Ellyn, said ending the invocation "is an idea worth considering."

Though the practice of pre-meeting prayers is not widespread in the Chicago suburbs, the county board isn't the only governmental body in DuPage to have invocations. The Wheaton City Council and forest preserve commission also have prayers before the start of some meetings.

On Wednesday, county board member Tim Elliott said he's opposed to eliminating the invocation.

"I believe that having people up there of different faiths is a sign of respect for our diversity," said Elliott, a Glen Ellyn Republican.

"Faith is an important component for the vast majority of our citizens," he said. "To celebrate that is important."

In 2014, the U.S. Supreme Court weighed in on the issue of prayer at council meetings. That 5-4 high court opinion seemed to support DuPage's practice when it said the prayers are OK as long as they do not denigrate non-Christians or try to win converts.

County board Chairman Dan Cronin said DuPage has always made an effort to bring in people from all faiths to do the invocation.

"I personally think an invocation is a wonderful way to start the board meeting," the Elmhurst Republican said.

But if DeSart and other Democrats take formal steps to eliminate the invocation, Cronin said he's obligated to allow the discussion. "And if the majority of the board members here agree with them," he said, "then we'll have to consider changes."

Robert Larsen
Tim Elliott
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