Prayer divisive at public meetings
WASHINGTON — It happens every week at meetings in towns, counties and cities nationwide. A lawmaker or religious leader leads a prayer before officials begin the business of zoning changes, contract approvals and trash pickup.
But citizens are increasingly taking issue with these prayers, some of which have been in place for decades. At least five lawsuits across the country — in California, Florida, Missouri, New York and Tennessee — are actively challenging pre-meeting prayers.
Lawyers on both sides say there is a new complaint almost weekly, though they don't always end up in court. When they do, it seems even courts are struggling to draw the line over the acceptable ways to pray. Some lawyers and lawmakers believe it's only a matter of time before the Supreme Court will weigh in to resolve the differences. The court has previously declined to take on the issue, but lawyers in a New York case plan to ask the justices in December to revisit it. And even if the court doesn't take that particular case, it could accept a similar one.
Lawmakers who defend the prayers cite the nation's founders and say they're following a long tradition of prayer before public meetings. They say residents don't have to participate and having a prayer adds solemnity to meetings and serves as a reminder to do good work.
“It's a reassuring feeling,” said Lakeland, Fla., Mayor Gow Fields of his city's prayers, which have led to an ongoing legal clash with an atheist group. The City Commission's meeting agenda now begins with a disclaimer that any prayer offered before the meeting is the “voluntary offering of a private citizen” and not being endorsed by the commission.
Citizens and groups made uncomfortable by the prayers say they're fighting an inappropriate mix of religion and politics.
“It makes me feel unwelcome,” said Tommy Coleman, the son of a church pianist and a self-described secular humanist who is challenging pre-meeting prayers in Tennessee's Hamilton County.
Coleman, 28, is urging the county to adopt a moment of silence at its meetings rather than beginning with a prayer.
Ian Smith, a lawyer with Americans United for Separation of Church and State, says his organization has gotten more complaints in recent years. That could be because people are more comfortable standing up for themselves or more aware of their options, but Smith also said groups on the right have promoted the adoption of prayers.
Brett Harvey, a lawyer at the Arizona-based Alliance Defending Freedom, a Christian group that often helps towns defend their practices, sees it the other way. He says liberal groups have made a coordinated attempt to bully local governments into abandoning prayers, resulting in more cases.
“It's really kind of a campaign of fear and disinformation,” Harvey said.
Courts around the country don't agree on what's acceptable or haven't considered the issue. In 1983 the Supreme Court approved prayer before legislative meetings, saying prayers don't violate the First Amendment. But the case didn't set any boundaries on those prayers, and today courts disagree on what is permissible.
For example, one court ruling from 2011 says that prayers before legislative meetings in Maryland, North Carolina, South Carolina, Virginia and West Virginia should be nondenominational or non-sectarian. That means the prayer leader can use general words like “God” and “our creator” but isn't supposed to use words like “Jesus” ‘'Christ” and “Allah” that are specific to a single religion.
The law is different in courts in Florida, Georgia and Alabama: In 2008, a federal court of appeals overseeing those states upheld the prayer practice of Georgia's Cobb County, which had invited a rotating group of clergy members to give prayers before its meetings. The prayers were predominantly Christian and often included references to Jesus.
Towns that get complaints, meanwhile, have responded differently. Some have made changes, some willingly and others with misgivings. Other towns have dug in to defend their traditions.