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CHARLESTON -- A group addressed the Coles County Board on Wednesday and asked that it change its longstanding tradition of a prayer to open its meetings to instead hold a moment of silence.

The board also heard from some people opposed to the change, with both sides citing a U.S. Supreme Court decision they said supported their positions.

Speaking for the change, Annalisa Switzer said the court ruling allowed any citizen to offer an invocation. It's unconstitutional for a board member to lead the prayer while serving as a government representative, she added.

The board's opening prayers never mention any religion other than Christianity and can be seen as divisive to people of other faiths or those who aren't religious, Switzer said.

"I can guarantee you all these beliefs are held by citizens of Coles County," she said, adding that a moment of silence "doesn't leave anyone out."

The group presented the board with a petition signed by 47 people that favored the change. However, those opposing it indicated they had support from a larger number of county residents.

Naomi Idleman said 480 people have signed a petition asking that the board continue with the prayer, which she said was never meant to be disrespectful.

"It does not represent our community as a whole," Idleman said of the moment of silence request.

Idleman said she provided a copy of the petition to the board.

The prayer has been part of the board's meetings for decades. A board member leads the prayer at most meetings, though it's sometime another county official, and the phrase "in Jesus' name we pray" is often included.

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When or if the board might address the matter formally wasn't certain Wednesday.

Board Vice Chairman Brandon Bell said the group in favor of the change also made the request at a recent meeting of the board's Offices and Rules Committee, which he chairs.

Bell said the committee voted to table the matter until its next meeting.

Also among those addressing the issue Wednesday was Kirk Allen, part of a government scrutiny group known as the Edgar County Watchdogs.

He also mentioned the U.S. Supreme Court decision, which he said also concluded that Christian prayer at a public meeting is allowed.

"It need not become a religion-free zone," Allen said.

Charles Stodden opposed the change, saying history showed that separation of church and state meant government can "tyrannize people of faith." Laws are meant to prevent harm, not to keep someone from being offended, he said.

"We don't have to bully people into not saying things," Stodden said. "Going any other direction will be turmoil. You need to stand your ground and don't be bullied."

The next speaker, Ellen Wolcott, spoke in favor of the change by saying the request comes at a time when the country is becoming more aware of its diversity.

"We're all learning how to celebrate that diversity," she said. "We're not trying to bully you. We're trying to get the board to go along with the rest of the country." 

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Contact Dave Fopay at (217) 238-6858. Follow him on Twitter: @FopayDave

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Reporter

Dave Fopay is a reporter for the JG-TC who covers Coles County, the local court system, Charleston schools and more.

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