Prayer and Spending: Wanting More from Vienna Town Government

I try to keep things light on my blog. Well, as light as being a parent in the 21st Century can be, these days. But on the whole, I focus on sharing what’s going on in Vienna, and some trials and achievements of parenthood.

For about six years I’ve lived in the actual Town of Vienna – not just in the zip codes that cover Vienna, but in the miles governed by the Township. It’s a one-of-a-kind situation in Fairfax County, and we have extra governance and services as a result.

Lately there have been some Town practices that I find troubling. In the spirit of encouraging conversation about issues in our community that can lead to learning, growing and possible change, I share them respectfully here for your consideration and comment.

The first is an issue that hit me square in the face when I attended a public Town Council meeting in February about then-pending noise ordinance changes. I went to the meeting planning to share my viewpoints – a democratic thing to do. When the meeting began, I was blindsided by a prayer led by a local pastor that was in no way ecumenical. I immediately felt out of place and defensive, as someone who doesn’t subscribe to the religious beliefs shared in that prayer and because I value separation of church and state in America. I spent the remainder of the meeting wondering what to do in response to this apparent infringement of my freedoms, rather than be an active citizen in the discussion about noise issues.

I contacted the Mayor and Town Council members to share my concern. Two responses were very technical, and unapologetic: the Town policy invites local clergy and faith leaders to follow Constitutional interpretations by the U.S. Supreme Court and the Fourth Circuit of the U.S. Court of Appeals, to provide a non-sectarian invocation that is not to be used to proselytize or advance any one faith or belief. It is a tradition of the Council to invite spiritual guidance before a meeting. Two Town Council members shared my discomfort at having the practice at all, let alone one that so clearly leaned toward one religion, as is often the case.

It seems the Town will continue this practice, although perhaps try harder to invite a true representation of religious faiths from around town. I suggested starting Council meetings with insightful and inspirational, non-religious words from citizens and leaders, but that doesn’t have traction. Getting back to those New Yorker roots of mine – I have never on Long Island seen any public government meeting started with a prayer referencing a particular religious belief. I think there would be uproar. This Council practice is something I’m not used to in Vienna.

The other item is about severance packages for Town employees. The issue arose when the Public Works Director Holly Chu left her position, rather suddenly and mysteriously. Her severance package was $50,000 for six months pay, after five years of service as the Director (though a Town employee for nine years). Comparatively, when I left the Federal government, my severance package was $0 after three years of service. Why does local Town government offer so much more? The Sun Gazette reported that, “The town does not have an official severance policy and the Town Council has directed town staff members to produce one.” It’s great that we have hard-working and experienced people working on Town issues. I’d like to see policies that make it fair for both workers and taxpayers for how workers are compensated when departing.

So, hope I didn’t turn anyone off from reading my blog. Just trying to push my own understanding of our community and have honest conversations about how to sustain a place where we are proud to raise our kids. Care to share your thoughts?

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18 thoughts on “Prayer and Spending: Wanting More from Vienna Town Government

  1. I too am conflicted when a prayer, whether it is ecumenical or not, is used prior to any government meeting. I am in favor of an insightful and inspirational comment from local leaders like our locally elected offitials or even busineess leaders living in Vienna. Since I volunteer my time to the Vienna government I would at least like to feel comforatable during the meetings and not be conflicted from the begining of the meeting when prayers are provided.
    Thanks for the post.
    Drew

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  2. It’s great to see you intersperse your mom and ‘things to do’ posts with topics that promote a bit of debate. In the UK, we think you’d be just as likely to see a local town council meeting being introduced by some form of religious practice. We also think that the origins of such an event would be rooted in the simple acceptance that things had always been done that way. It’s no excuse, however, for it not to be challenged and carefully reconsidered. The risk to the politicians is that of offending the preferences of their voters. But it is a shame to think that pandering to the assumed preferences of voters ignores the much more diverse composition of their constituency. Good for you for challenging it and keep us posted on any changes afoot. S, H & A

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    • Thanks for offering an international perspective. Especially since the UK is the very country from which America broke from colonization to start a new nation. I appreciate your views.

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  3. Thank you for your post and thank you for raising the issue about the prayer with the Town Council. I was not aware that they were doing that and it is very disappointing.

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  4. I almost did not take the time to respond to this post, but you specifically asked for comments and honest conversation. I am not a “Town” resident, but I do live in Vienna. I am a native Virginian, lived 6 adult years in New York (Westchester County), and am now raising a family in Northern Virginia. As many of the politicians and political commentaries have stated, Northern Virginia really is completely different than the rest of the state. While I value the diversity in this metropolitan area, I strive to surround myself with others in the local community who are just as conservative as my husband and I are…especially now that we are raising children in this crazy world.
    I have never attended a Town Council meeting, and I did not know that they pray before each meeting. I actually LIKE the idea that they pray. I was not raised any particular denomination, but I am a Christian. I admit that it bothers me that people actually consider praying an “infringement of their freedoms”. Everyone is certainly entitled to their own opinions; however, I am more bothered by the fact that when you complained to the Town about how unsettled you felt after the Town meeting you were not satisfied with the response that they provided. It really seems like the town is making an effort to include a variety of faiths when asking for “spiritual guidance.” The Town invites someone to come pray – they cannot control what the person says or the tone the prayer will take. Additionally, the Town cites this as a tradition – and I am pretty sure that we all love Vienna for its small-town feel in this large metropolitan area and for many of its traditions. I hope that you do not write to the Town with a plea to discontinue the Church Street Stroll or the Easter Egg Hunt, as those two events are based on Christian traditions. Granted, there may not be prayer at these events, but the whole reason they even exist is because Jesus was born/died (and, yes, I hate the fact that these two holidays have been commercialized and include ridiculous things like “Santa Claus” and the “Easter Bunny”).
    As for the spending – I do not know many people who receive severance. We do not know the issue(s) at hand or why she actually left suddenly and mysteriously. The Federal Government surely does not have the ability to pay everyone severance. Look at the figures for our debt and spending. Things are out of control, and I really hope both parties can agree on something reasonable.
    Lastly, yes I have posted this as an anonymous follower. I am not ashamed of my opinions, but I am raising two very young children (and hopefully more) whose lives should not be impacted by my invited comments on a public blog. This is, after all, a small town!! (A small town that runs the risk of losing its charm when too many people move in and make drastic changes to accomodate their own beliefs/comforts, thereby eliminating the small-town feel.)

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    • It’s great that you decided to take the time to respond with your thoughts.

      It seems we differ on the appropriate place of prayer and religion in taxpayer-funded activities. I actually turn to prayer often and partake in spiritual activities, just not in a publicly-funded venue.

      I agree that the Town cannot control what invited religious leaders say at prayers before the Council meetings; however, this is not only an issue about the Town’s inclusion of prayer, but also how people and leaders in the community view their actions as being inclusive to people of all beliefs. I think there is a way to be spiritual and thoughtful without being religious.

      I agree with you that it is difficult to state, publicly, one’s individual opinion on the topic of religion in public life. I struggled for months on whether, or how, to raise the subject. I also wondered if it would impact my daughter in a public way. I think what we can both agree on is that it is important to engage in difficult dialogue in our community, and not be scared to do so.

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  5. Put simply, the freedom OF religion is not a guarantee of freedom FROM religion. Nor is it blanket coverage to claim offense at the mere presence of religion.

    While what you experienced at the Town Council meeting may be just on the constitutional side of the establishment clause, your contention that such a practice falls foul of “separation of church and state”, a term which appears nowhere in the constitution, shows a profound lack of understanding of both constitutional law and general governmental practice.

    Perhaps more concerning however, is the fact that, on the one hand, you extol the “one-of-a-kind” nature of Vienna within Fairfax County (perhaps you just forgot about both Herndon and Clifton?), but on the other, you exclaim that such a practice would never happen in New York. You may indeed be correct, but that is wholly and materially irrelevant! I suspect that you would find such practices to be comfortably in line with the beliefs of the vast majority of Vienna residents. It may not be your choice (or even my choice), but the fact that such traditions are both constitutional, and in-line with the values of this small community is something that you will simply have to accept, rather than announcing to the entire internet that “I’m offended!”

    You speak of the challenges of being a parent in the 21st century – do your child a favor and teach them that in their life they WILL be offended and they will simply have to deal with it.

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    • It seems like you have a background in law, and are knowledgeable in that area. I challenge that I lack a “profound” understanding of the law; I am an educated American who, while having not studied law intensively, have studied enough American history, public policy and political science to know that there have been both traditions and laws in America’s past that the majority of people now challenge.

      True, there are many offensive things in this world that each of us will encounter. I expect to be offended by any number of things, but not be offended – really excluded – to my face by my local, taxpayer-supported government. I would hope that this issue of exclusion by our government would infuriate people of any religious belief.

      One lesson I hope to teach my daughter by starting this dialogue is to show her that it is important to stand up for your core beliefs, and seek respectful resolution to challenges.

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    • I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone looking for a “blanket coverage to claim offense at the mere presence of religion” and I especially don’t see the correlation to this post. The author is claiming the right not to see religious expression.

      Some people say that we have freedom of religion, but not freedom from religion, but that is a true misunderstanding of what real freedom of religion involves. Freedom of religion must apply to everyone, and you do not have the freedom to practice your religious beliefs if you are also required to conform to traditions of other religions. Forcing someone to adhere to behavioral standards from a religion that is not their own means that their religious freedom is has been infringed upon.

      The establishment clause is a popular thing to debate, especially by those who wish the membrane separating church and state to be semi-permeable in one direction. And since the words, “separation of church and state” is not actually in the constitution, but penned in a letter by Thomas Jefferson, it is further dismissed by those who oppose the notion.

      Law is always up for interpretation, so you have faith based lawyers arguing with secular lawyers, and everyone can find someone with a J.D. degree to quote in their favor. But as this currently stands, the ultimate decision maker on these matters is the U.S. Supreme Court. They have held that legislative prayers are constitutional if they do not use language or symbols specific to one religion. I wasn’t at the meeting, but from the description of the author, it would appear this prayer did evoke a specific deity.

      And finally, this mother is teaching her daughter that when offended you just have to “deal” with it…. by speaking up for her rights.

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      • This is a thoughtful and well-written response. Thank you. I find the last part of what you wrote, about what the U.S. Supreme Court considers to be constitutional, to be explained particularly well.

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  6. For some people, it seems that “small-town” community is defined as being religious, and being a place where people largely hold the same beliefs. I thought “small-town” means a place where neighbors know and respect one another. Where there are more local businesses than franchised stores. Where the local government supports community events that invite all people, in the truest sense of inclusion.

    What do you think?

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  7. What interests me the most about this post is not that the town of Vienna prayed at the beginning of a meeting, but that they did not seem open to expanding this ‘tradition’ to have openings more spiritual in nature. Many ‘traditions’ and practices evolve over time, and often for the better. An example that comes to mind is the presence of a father for his child’s birth. 50 years ago, the husband could not be with his wife while she delivered their baby. Furthermore, the new mother and father could not easily hold and bond with the baby shortly after birth (medical complications or not). Sticking to ‘tradition’ simply for the sake of maintaining that tradition does not allow for review of the current appropriateness of the ‘tradition.’ That mindset bothers me far more than any one ‘tradition’ the council sticks to since it eliminates the opportunity for progress.

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  8. This rubs me the wrong way too because they seem to be favoring one religion and, thus, promoting it. I prefer the separation of church and state when it comes to things like this. If this was a private gathering, then I would feel different. If they truly did invite people of various religions to pray/speak/invoke, then I’d feel a little bit better, but I tend to doubt they will do so.

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  9. Thank you for announcing on a public blog that the prayer before a tax-payer public meeting was offensive! Because it is! The same thing happens at prayers before city council meetings in the town I live in also. I am offended by it also. Church and state IS separate and should stay that way!

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