Pray at town hall? Supreme Court says you can

Is it tradition or coercion? Local opinions differ on the wisdom of prayer at public meetings

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  • The U.S. Supreme Court

By Hema Easely

— Local town boards typically start their meetings with the Pledge of Allegiance a salute to the flag. Then it gets down to business.

“We don’t get complaints from our residents about how we conduct our business. The argument could be, ‘We haven’t done it in the past, why do it now?’”
Alex Jameison, Chester Supervisor

But following a Supreme Court decision Monday that upheld decidedly Christian prayers at town council meetings, the five-member Chester town board will consider whether to include prayer at its next meeting on May 14.

“It’s not a top priority agenda,” said Supervisor Alex Jamieson. “It’s something we haven’t done (in the past). I’ll talk to the board, and if they think it’s appropriate I don’t have an issue with it.”

The 5-4 ruling along ideological lines stems from a Greece, N.Y., case where two women objected to prayers at town meetings on grounds they violated the First Amendment clause that prohibits the establishment of religion. The town had included prayers for almost 10 years, offered almost exclusively by Christian clergymen, a practice opposed by the Jewish and atheist complainants.

The court ruled that prayers were in line with longstanding national tradition, and that the content of the prayers was not significant as long as they did not denigrate non-Christians or try to proselytize.

Writing for the conservative majority, Justice Anthony Kennedy said that forcing clergy to scrub the prayers of references to Jesus Christ and other sectarian religious figures would turn officials into censors. Instead, Kennedy said, the prayers should be seen as ceremonial and in keeping with the nation's traditions.

"The inclusion of a brief, ceremonial prayer as part of a larger exercise in civic recognition suggests that its purpose and effect are to acknowledge religious leaders and the institutions they represent, rather than to exclude or coerce nonbelievers," Kennedy said.

Justice Elena Kagan, writing for the court's four liberal justices, said, "I respectfully dissent from the court's opinion because I think the Town of Greece's prayer practices violate that norm of religious equality — the breathtakingly generous constitutional idea that our public institutions belong no less to the Buddhist or Hindu than to the Methodist or Episcopalian."

Kagan said citizens who come before government boards may feel coerced into prayer: “After all, she wants, very badly, what the judge or poll worker or immigration official has to offer.”

Jamieson: It's up to constituents

In deciding whether to start prayers in Chester, Jamieson said he would look to see who his constituents were and how they felt.

“We don’t get complaints from our residents about how we conduct our business,” said Jamieson. “The argument could be, ‘We haven’t done it in the past, why do it now?’”

In neighboring Warwick, Supervisor Michael Sweeton welcomed the high court’s decision.

“It’s great that the Supreme Court has ruled this way,” said Sweeton. “I’ve always been of the opinion that the separation of church and state didn’t preclude you from doing it.”

But Gary Greenwald, an Orange County attorney and political commentator, was less than thrilled with the decision. He said the Supreme Court decision was a misreading of the difference between religion and government. He supported Justice Kagan’s opinion.

“No meeting, state-run, should ever support any organized religion whether Buddhist, Hindu. Christian or Jewish,” said Greenwald who interpreted the decision as supporting Christianity. “It’s an absolutely wrong decision.”

Greenwald said he didn’t oppose prayer as long as it was innocuous and did not attach to any organized religion.

“No religion should mean no religion,” he said.

Brad Morrison of Chester doesn't quite agree. While he identifies as an atheist, he said he had no problem with people praying at public meetings.

“I don’t think people exercising one religion are denigrating another,” said Morrison. He said people have been overly sensitive on this issue.

“I don’t want to see government practicing religion as government, but I don’t see that this fits the case,” he added. “There’s a difference between government practicing religion and people in government praying.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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