For as long as could be remembered, Sand Springs city councilors have been starting their meetings with a prayer.
That custom is being challenged by a man who charges that the prayers violate the U.S. Constitution.
Local resident Beau McElhattan sent an email to Mayor Mike Burdge and the rest of the city council saying that the prayers are exclusionary. McElhattan asked that the city respond by Aug. 5 with what steps they would take to make sure that "citizens of all faiths or of no faith will be represented equally when it comes to invocations at council meetings."
McElhattan is originally from Sand Springs and currently lives in Tulsa, he said.
The problem, said Rebecca Markert, an attorney with the Freedom From Religion Foundation, an organization devoted to promoting a separation of church and state in American life, is that Sand Springs councilors "have a practice of sectarian prayers going on."
McElhattan contacted the Freedom From Religion Foundation about the matter.
Many Sand Springs City Council meeting prayers, delivered by various councilors, have at times invoked God or Jesus Christ specifically.
"We all need to live together," McElhattan said. "I don't think it's the government's place to endorse one religion over another like that."
Markert said in a 1983 U.S. Supreme Court Decision, Marsh V. Chambers, the court upheld that governmental prayers were permissible so long as they were nonsectarian or nondenominational. The invocation of specific deities violates the guidelines of Marsh V. Chambers, Markert said.
That Supreme Court decision revolved around Nebraska's opening of legislative sessions with a prayer delivered by a chaplain.
Sand Springs City Attorney David Weatherford said Marsh V. Chambers "clearly upholds the right to have opening prayer at meetings."
It's up to the individual councilors to pray how they want, Weatherford said. He said such prayers did not mean the city was exclusionary to people of other faiths or no faith.
"One individual council member praying is not dictating a policy," Weatherford said.
Mayor Mike Burdge said there was a longtime tradition of governments opening with prayer.
"The city council has done this as long as I've been here," Burdge said.
McElhattan said the city council should focus purely on the secular work of running the city government, and keep their prayers private.
Markert said council members or the public could pray individually if they wanted to, but when a prayer becomes part of a government meeting, "that's problematic.
"As the country becomes more diverse, these prayers are becoming more and more problematic," Markert said.
Weatherford said the city wanted to be sensitive to people of all faiths. He said the city would review options and see if they should do anything differently. He did not yet know the next steps as of deadline Tuesday.
Burdge said the council would heed the advice of Weatherford on whether to continue the practice. He said he didn't think the city should fight the issue with taxpayer money if it wasn't necessary.
"The scripture says, before you enter into war, make sure you have counsel," Burdge said.