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Podiums, Prayers, and Pledges - 08/06/14

Sometimes a little change can make all the difference in the world. A change can be as simple as moving the furniture around gives a room a whole new look and feel.

Take, for example, the city commission chambers and what may seem like just another piece of furniture: the podium.

Meeting experts believe that the way the furniture is arranged even the shape of the table can change the dynamics of a meeting.

As long as I can remember, the podium in the city commission chambers has been off to the side of the dais. The podium is where people tell the commission what they think.

A city meeting, you see, is not only a meeting of the commissioners, but a meeting of the commissioners with the people. So where the podium is in relation to the decision makers and the citizens may well affect, as the meeting experts would tell us, the dynamics of our city meetings.

By law, residents can speak on the public record to elected officials, who are the decision makers, about their support of, or opposition to, matters under consideration, and state other concerns they have pertaining to city issues. The rules rightly state that all comments from the podium will be directed to the commission and be confined to city business.

Unfortunately, with the podium where is was, half facing the dais and half facing the audience, it encouraged people who are not very good at following rules to grandstand, play to the audience, and call attention to themselves.

Whoever had the idea to move the podium center stage, directly facing the mayor and the commissioners and not facing the audience, gets a gold star for a simple, simply brilliant idea.

Let people speak, if you will, but "make" them speak to the commissioners with whom they are meeting and conduct themselves with appropriate decorum, something that has been sorely lacking in too many cases. It is, after all, a city meeting, about city business, not a place to show off with stump speeches or comedy routines.

It's just a little move only a few feet but it could help change the way we do city business meetings in Deerfield Beach in a good way. It might make our meetings a little bit more civil and focused.

I have another simple suggestion that relates to the invocations of prayer offered at the start of regular city commission meetings. Thus, the title of this piece, "Podiums, Prayers, and Pledges." It's not to move any furniture, but to shuffle the order of business.

It has been a few months now since the Supreme Court handed down Town of Greece v. Galloway. It is clear that local government councils, Deerfield Beach in particular, can conduct the prayer sessions within a certain constitutional framework. To state it simply, the city can do the prayers as long as it doesn't turn the podium (no matter which way it faces) into a pulpit.

The Greece decision was a pretty close call in some respects. All of the justices, including the four dissenters, agreed that Greece, New York, could have its invocations, but the dissenters thought the practice in this case crossed the constitutional line. The five justices in the majority decided that Greece's invocation practice was just fine the way it is.

However, the majority also made specific mention of certain features of the Greece practice that are different from the way we conduct the invocations here in Deerfield Beach. One was the order of business.

In Deerfield, the prayers and Pledge of Allegiance are packaged together, basically as a single ceremony. The prayer is first, then the Pledge. Sometimes the preacher conducts the Pledge. Before the prayer, the mayor typically "commands" the audience to rise. Okay, we know that she can't really order people to stand up, and no one is actually forced to participate in the opening ceremony, but some people may feel compelled to do so. After all, she is the mayor and she told us to stand.

In Greece, the order of business is different, and the Court made a point of this. The Pledge is said first. People sit down (presumably, most rose for the Pledge) and then the chair introduces the person delivering the invocation. The two ceremonies are not connected, and the chair never instructs people to stand for the invocation. The prayer giver may suggest people stand, but no public official does.

Would anyone object if we did it this way too?

Clearly, this does not resolve in any major way the controversy swirling around the invocation practice. But it may make people who are uncomfortable with the prayers feel a little less "pressured" into participating in something they don't believe in.

And it may acknowledge the fact that people in this city have many different religious views and opinions about how we exercise our beliefs, including how we pray and to whom.