BERLIN — The U.S. Supreme Court this week upheld the right of local governments to open meetings with a prayer, ruling it does not violate the Constitution. It was a decision lauded in some communities around the Lower Shore that have long established the practice.
The Supreme Court on Monday voted 5-4 to uphold the right to open local government meetings with some form of prayer or recognition of a higher power after the practice was challenged in an upstate New York town and other places around the country including neighboring Sussex County, Del.
The case before the Supreme Court was specific to the town of Greece, N.Y., which was sued seven years ago for its practice of opening town meetings with prayer. The complainants alleged the opening prayers in general violated the separation of church and state spelled out in the Constitution, and more specifically the prayers offered before meetings were largely Christian.
In the majority opinion, the Supreme Court essentially ruled opening local government meetings with a secular prayer was part of the nation’s heritage and as well established as reciting the Pledge of Allegiance.
“Ceremonial prayer is but a recognition that, since this nation was founded and until the present day, many Americans deem that their own existence must be understood by precepts far beyond the authority of government to alter or define, and that the willing participation in civic affairs can be consistent with a brief acknowledgment of their belief in a higher power, always with due respect for those who adhere to other beliefs,” the majority opinion reads. “The prayer in this case has a permissible ceremonial purpose. It is not an unconstitutional establishment of religion.”
The majority basically opined openings meetings with a prayer did not violate First Amendment rights as long as an effort was made to include diverse faiths and no attempt was made to coerce those in attendance into participating.
“The prayer opportunity in this case must be evaluated against the backdrop of historical practice,” the majority opinion reads. “As a practice that has long endured, legislative prayer has become part of our heritage and tradition. 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.”
In the dissenting opinion, Justice Elena Kagan said the predominance of Christian-themed prayers did not always embrace a community’s diversity and was not appropriate in the non-secular setting of government meetings.
“In this country, when citizens go before the government, they do not go as Christians or Muslims or Jews, but just as Americans,” said Kagan in the dissenting opinion. “That is what it means to be an equal citizen irrespective of religion.”
The Supreme Court’s ruling provided an opportunity to review the practices of local governments around the Lower Shore.
The town of Ocean City, for example, opens its regular council meetings with a prayer and the Pledge.
For decades in Berlin, Mayor and Council meetings have begun with the Pledge and a recitation of the Lord’s Prayer.
Worcester County opens its commission meetings with a brief prayer. In years past, members of the local clergy have presented the prayer or invocation, but the duties have fallen to longtime Commissioner Jim Purnell most often recently.
A similar practice is in place in Wicomico County, where a local clergy member often provides a brief prayer or invocation.
The Salisbury City Council three years ago dropped its formal prayer or invocation at the beginning of its meeting in favor of a moment of silence or reflection.
For Berlin Mayor Gee Williams, the Supreme Court ruling this week was appropriate in a town that has long recognized its diversity but opened its meetings with the Lord’s Prayer.
“The Supreme Court decision was overdue and much needed,” he said. “In the Town of Berlin, the important thing to remember is having an opening prayer at our meetings is an integral part of what it means to be an American and acknowledge and recognize a higher power. We obviously don’t advocate one religion over another. It’s simply a recognition of a greater power and it’s appropriate that we do that.”
Williams said current times dictate that acknowledging a higher power with a brief prayer or invocation is more important now perhaps than ever.
“The Supreme Court’s decision is extremely timely,” he said. “I can’t think of a time in this country’s history when prayer, no matter what faith, is more needed. It’s now perhaps more appropriate than ever. Everyone is entitled to their belief and everyone is also entitled to pray regardless of their faith.”
Williams said the religious and cultural makeup of Berlin makes reciting the Lord’s Prayer before council meetings appropriate, although it is certainly not an attempt to alienate anyone or any group in the community. He said he would be open to having other prayers said if there was a will to do so in the community.
“In all my years, I can never remember a regular Berlin Mayor and Council session starting without first reciting the Lord’s Prayer,” he said. “We should be given at least the knowledge that we know the difference between acknowledging a greater power without discriminating or alienating anyone in our community. If someone came forward and wanted to present a different prayer on occasion, I, as mayor, would be more than willing to honor their request in the interest of fairness and diversity.”
Meanwhile, in Salisbury, the Council voted in 2011 to end the practice of reciting a prayer at the opening of a meeting and instead implement a moment of silence or reflection. However, Council President Jake Day said this week he intended to restore the old practice of an opening prayer with all of the faiths in the community invited to participate.
“Currently, we hold a moment of silence or reflection,” he said. “That is what the previous council leadership put into place. That said, I am very interested in making a change now. My plan is to ask leaders of every religious institution in Salisbury to participate in a rotating plan to lead the council in prayer. I plan to bring this to my council at the next work session.”
Day said he has considered reversing the decision made long before he was elected.
“It was long before my election and I didn’t change it immediately, but have always intended to,” he said. “There wasn’t urgency, simply because it wasn’t one of the business items that was a priority for me.”
In neighboring lower Delaware, the Sussex County Council stopped reciting the Lord’s Prayer at the beginning of its regular meetings after a suit was filed in U.S. District Court against the elected officials by a separation of church and state advocacy group and four private citizens.
As part of a settlement in the case in the form of a consent decree, the Sussex County Council has since stopped opening meetings with the Lord’s Prayer and has instead begun sessions with the 23rd Psalm from the Old Testament. It is uncertain what impact Monday’s Supreme Court ruling will have in Sussex.