Salem's mayor criticized for saying prayer before delivering 'State of the City' address

Mayor Chuck Bennett delivers Salem's 'State of the City' address - Image courtesy City of Salem.jpg

SALEM, Ore. – This year's “State of the City” address from Salem Mayor Chuck Bennett is causing some people concern, worried that it appeared to endorse religion in violation of constitutional separation of church and state.

Mayor Bennett says his prayer that preceded the speech was simply the sponsor's choice of how to open a gathering, which traditionally includes the speech.

Critics, however, see a pattern of questionable actions.

Mayor Bennett says the address is not an official city function, and the invocation is set up by the sponsoring civic group – this year, the Rotary Club.

“I respect her opinion. And it's one of many. I'm sure there are those who feel real strongly we make a mistake not having, like I said, a prayer at the beginning of city council or planning commission or any other city event,” said Mayor Bennett.

Laurel Hines says this time a prayer preceding Mayor Bennett's January 23 “State of the City” address amounts to religious endorsement in violation of the separation of church and state.

“I still think prayer is not appropriate for that because a lot of us just don't believe in prayer, and we don't like being instructed to pray,” said Hines.

Over a year ago, Hines was part of a group challenging a cross memorial that was put up along a Salem street to honor someone who died in a crash. Within a month the cross was removed by family members of the victim, who were hoping to end the controversy.

READ MORE: Family takes down mother's roadside cross memorial after group demands Salem remove it

Hines - an avowed Athiest - was so upset at the prayer that came before the mayor's address, she took her complaint to Salem's city council on Monday.

“I was distressed to hear that it was begun with a minister directing everybody to pray,” said Hines.

Mayor bennett says the difference lies in that his “State of the City” speech is delivered during an event put together by civic organizations, while city events are organized by the city.

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