H artford Supervisor Dana Haff, who has been under criticism from some for his prayers at Washington County Board of Selectmen meetings, was not at Friday’s session.
Haff, who is on vacation, was also not at Tuesday’s Government Operations Committee meeting. But his allies were at both, and Haff, the Hartford town supervisor, will continue to lead a prayer prior to the board’s regular sessions.
After hearing support for Haff from a local pastor, the Rev. James Peterson, at Friday’s meeting, and following positive comments from several supervisors at Tuesday’s meeting, the committee agreed to keep Haff in place, but to monitor what he says.
“I wanted to speak today in favor of continuing a prayer at your meetings,” Peterson told the board Friday. “I believe God in his infinite wisdom wants to help you make the right decisions.”
Haff was attending a wedding out of state over the weekend, so the prayer duties were taken up by Bob Henke of Argyle, who gave a somber, fairly secular prayer focused on thanks for the day. He later reflected that his prayer was driven by the recent death of a longtime friend.
“I think that was an excellent prayer. I could not have done it better myself,” Peterson said with a smile, as he started his comments. He was the only person to speak, but three women with him had posters that said, “In God we trust.”
Granville Supervisor Matt Hicks is comfortable with a prayer to start the meeting.
“Bob’s prayer was certainly appropriate,” Hicks said. “A generic prayer is fine. I think it’s OK to ask for help and guidance. I don’t even mind the words God or Lord. It’s when you start promoting a specific religion that it’s an issue.”
Haff has often mixed political commentary into his prayers, which are clearly directed at a Christian God. He tended to go on at length and would often incorporate historical references as well.
“I actually enjoyed Dana’s prayers, even when they are lengthy,” Hicks said. “He does a lot of research into what he’s talking about.
“I think what happened was a couple of supervisors got upset about some of the things he said, then all of a sudden, we got a letter from the American Civil Liberties Union. I really don’t think there were many supervisors really upset about the prayers.”
In recent months, Haff has been less controversial, though he did say, “I must be doing something right” when told about the ACLU complaint.
Attorney: Prayer OK
County Attorney Roger Wickes points out that prayer itself is not the issue.
“Prayer at public meetings, in and of itself, is not a problem. It’s how it’s done,” he said. “The prayer that Mr. Henke delivered was a nice one that was nondenominational.
“It’s anything that would lead to the endorsement of a particular viewpoint or religion that is the problem,” Wickes added.
Hampton Town Supervisor David O’Brien has spoken in favor of the prayers during interviews and at committee meetings. Chairman John Rymph has said he would prefer not to have a prayer. Greenwich Supervisor Sara Idleman has said at meetings that she does not agree with what Haff does with the prayers at times.
“I just think a lot of people are talking about the First Amendment and about not establishing a religion, but prayer is not about that. It’s about asking for guidance and asking for help,” O’Brien said. “I don’t understand why, if we are following the rules, we cannot have prayer.
“We are charged with tough decisions, and they are getting more complex every day.”
Peterson, who is the pastor of Baptist churches in Granville and Whitehall, did have a suggestion on how to change the approach to the prayer. “Maybe you could invite local clergy, or have supervisors invite people to say the prayer,” he said. “That would get more people involved.”
Congress uses chaplains of a variety of faiths.
Peterson finished by quoting the Bible, specifically Proverbs 3:5-6, “Trust in the Lord with all your heart. And lean not on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge him. And he shall direct your paths.”