Now you're talking

January 15, 2002 12:00 am

After seeing Baker City at its civic worst, we see a glimmer of hope in this past weeks City Council meeting.

If Mayor Nancy Shark can keep the council on task, Baker City might yet find a solution to concerns about opening business meetings with prayer a solution that balances the needs of the policys supporters with its detractors.

We didnt have much reason for optimism a month ago. Whatever side you were on, the recall election against Gary Dielman was an ugly episode in our citys history.

Now Shark is showing that this council might be able to do what previous councils have not: Hear the valid concerns of those citizens who feel the councils prayer almost invariably Christian isnt inclusive of all citizens, and may even force some citizens or city employees to stand and pray against their will for fear of retribution.

That is not to say the council must do away with the prayer. But Shark, in asking for public input, has finally made possible a meaningful discussion on the practice.

Never before had the council scheduled the question on a council agenda and sought public input.

Neither of the two previous votes included such a solicitation: The first came during a council goal-setting session; the second, late in a meeting under Other Business.

Neither was set on an agenda with proper public notice. Had the council decided a sewer rate increase or the location of a traffic control device in such a fashion, the public would have been calling for their heads.

Instead, those whose interests were defended in those votes continue to celebrate them as the height of democratic success.

Not so.

But what is emerging now may very well be a success.

The question has evolved beyond the simple pray/dont pray dichotomy to include a host of other options.

We have editorialized previously in favor of a moment of silence, but find other recent proposals worth exploring.

In November, Councilor Nick Greear suggested the council encourage the mayor to expand the sphere of people tapped to deliver the invocation.

At present, the task rotates among members of the Baker Ministerial Association. But not all of the communitys churches participate in that group, and relying on an organization comprising only organized religions precludes many faiths too small to muster congregations.

Councilor Beverly Calder has offered a variation on Greears theme, suggesting the council model its policy on the practices of the Oregon House of Representatives. Under that proposal, responsibility for selecting the invocation giver would rotate among councilors.

This retains the opportunity for ministers to deliver a prayer, but expands the sphere to include citizenship essay winners from local schools; community leaders other than ministers; and even people from cultures native to North America.

One thing is for certain: This is not a First Amendment question.

It can be argued that the First Amendment should prevent prayer at City Council meetings or that the First Amendment protects it.

No, we dont think the wisdom of our nations founders supports one side or the other.

Instead, it makes this conversation possible.

The community has been talking about this issue for some time now; Mayor Shark has finally made the council listen.

Theres a better policy waiting to emerge from this discussion.