Huntington, West Virginia Mayor Steve Williams thinks he has a solution to the scourge of drugs and crime in his community.
In a video posted online, Williams makes a plea to local ministers for “all the churches within the tri-state” to pray on September 7 for healing of those experiencing substance abuse, for the protection of law enforcement officers, and even for drug dealers.
Huntington is a city of about 350,000 that sits near the state’s borders with Ohio and Kentucky.
The local news coverage of Williams’ effort is notable for the absence of any discussion of the constitutional concerns raised by a mayor’s enlistment of explicitly Christian prayer as a “silver bullet” for a grave and challenging public safety and health problem.
Williams, a Democrat, tells local news channel WSAZ that the video “isn’t meant to be political” and that “he hasn’t even shared it on his own Facebook page.”
In the “not political” video, the mayor adds, “I’ve come to understand and experience how powerful prayer can be personally in my life, and certainly what I’ve observed within my administration and how we’re going about doing business. Prayer is so powerful I cannot imagine the power that would be unleashed if every church on September 7 at 11:05 a.m. … would take a moment to pray.”
Williams has more than a few supporters, despite the constitutional issues raised by his endorsement of an explicitly Christian prayer effort. Boyd County (Kentucky) Circuit Judge George Davis III said Williams is “following the model that our founding fathers laid centuries ago,” adding that “before our Constitution could be ratified there was great fervent prayer. Before any great undertaking in the history of this country there has been prayer. I commend the mayor for what he’s doing.”
Williams draws kudos from further afield as well. Lea Carawan, executive director of the Congressional Prayer Caucus Foundation, a non-profit that supports the work of the Congressional Prayer Caucus, wrote in an email to supporters: “We join with the other citizens giving accolades to this mayor for his plea. Consider joining us in prayer for this brave leader, and how to answer this call for your city.”
I can’t help but think that supporters of these efforts are emboldened by the Supreme Court’s decision in Town of Greece v. Galloway this spring, in which the Court upheld sectarian prayer before town meetings, finding it did not violate the Establishment Clause. The Court leaned heavily on precedent upholding legislative prayer on the ground—much like those cited by Kentucky Judge Davis—that there is historical precedent for it.