Leaders: Christian-based prayer safe at local meetings

By Richard S. Gubbe

A seven-year challenge to the use of prayers or invocations to open government meetings was turned away last week when the Supreme Court upheld the offering of prayer even when they are overwhelmingly Christian-based. The use of Christian prayers will undoubtedly stay the same, according to local officials. But the ruling leaves the door open for additions.

The conservative-voting court turned away a lawsuit generated by a Jew and an atheist who challenged the opening of a government meeting in the small town of Greece, N.Y. The Supreme Court upheld the tradition last week that dates back to the framers of the Constitution in a 5-4 ruling, supported by the court’s conservative justices and opposed by its liberals. The vote maintains the status quo of the mixture of church and state at a government meeting that is driven by the majority of those who share similar religious views.

In the majority opinion, Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote: “As a practice that has long endured, legislative prayer has become part of our heritage and tradition, part of our expressive idiom, similar to the Pledge of Allegiance, inaugural prayer, or the recitation of ‘God save the United States and this honorable court’ at the opening of this court’s sessions.”

The majority ruled that opening local government meetings with sectarian prayers doesn’t violate the Establishment Clause as long as no religion is advanced or disparaged, and residents aren’t coerced to participate. The majority wrote that the alternative would enable government officials to “act as supervisors and censors of religious speech,” or declaring all such prayers unconstitutional.

The current law provides for legislative prayer as long as it does not advance or disparage any faith.

Kennedy said Monday’s decision follows in that spirit.

“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 non-believers,” he said.

The dissent came from Justice Elena Kagan who argued against mixing church and state. In her principal dissent she argued that local government meetings dominated by Christian prayer-givers puts any ruling on policy out of bounds.

“When the citizens of this country approach their government, they do so only as Americans, not as members of one faith or another,” Kagan said. “And that means that even in a partly legislative body, they should not confront government-sponsored worship that divides them along religious lines.”

The ruling came six months after oral arguments in November.

A prayer is often called an “invocation.” Webster’s Dictionary definition of an invocation includes: “the act of mentioning or referring to someone or something in support of your ideas; the act of invoking something; the act of asking for help or support especially from a god;: a prayer for blessing or guidance at the beginning of a service, ceremony, etc.; and a formula for conjuring.

Most local governmental meetings start with a prayer or invocation that to most has become standard procedure and without challenge. The area is predominantly Christian, but officials say the forum is open to prayers and support for all.

The Winnebago County Board is governed by a charter that is enforced by the Winnebago County State’s Attorney’s Office.

Chief of Staff and Civil Bureau David Kurlinkus told TRRT that the pre-meeting agenda includes an invocation that can be a mix of prayers or support for local, state or national leaders as well as protection for police and fire officials.

He said the content of the invocation represents the majority of the people who elect local government officials, but the invocation isn’t always a prayer. Twice a month, a different member of the 20-member board gives the invocation.

“There’s an agenda item that’s labeled invocation,” Kurlinkus said of the five years of meetings he has attended. “They go alphabetically. They say words of inspiration or pray. They don’t have to invoke God.” He added that the invocation precedes the Pledge of Allegiance and only lasts 30 seconds or so.

“Most of them use the opportunity to wish for guidance and protect those who serve and protect the country.” He said they also have been known to acknowledge tragedies and deaths and the prayers aren’t limited it to only Christians.

“It doesn’t have to uttered as a prayer,” he said.

At the City Council meetings in Rockford, the prayer or invocation is usually provided by the chaplain’s division, says Patrick Hayes, legal director for the city.

“The council determines that over time by rule,” Hayes said. “Those agenda items are part of our code.”

In Greece, there were only Christian prayers included in government meetings. The legal battle that began in 2007 in a town of nearly 100,000 people outside Rochester. Two women took their case to federal court and won by contending that prayers in Greece included references to Jesus, Christ and the Holy Spirit and that aligned the town with one religion.

Town officials added volunteer prayer-givers that included a Jewish layman, a Wiccan priestess and a member of the Baha’i faith. The two women, Susan Galloway and Linda Stephens, contended that the prayers in Greece were unconstitutional because they pressured those in attendance to participate. They noted that unlike federal and state government sessions, town board meetings are frequented by residents who must appear for everything from business permits to zoning changes.

The current court agreed to consider the case following a federal appeals court’s ruling against the town. Judge Guido Calabresi of the 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals had said its actions “virtually ensured a Christian viewpoint,” and featured a “steady drumbeat of often specifically sectarian Christian prayers.”

But ,according to the First Amendment: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,” which has become known as the Establishment Clause.

Since 1789, both houses of Congress have opened with prayers and the Obama administration supported the town. The result has been a reported watering down of the prayers said during the invocations in Greece.

From the May 14-20, 2014 issue

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