Unanswered Prayers

Supreme Court Ruling On Local Government Invocations Sparks Reaction And Spawns Confusion

Just days after the U.S. Supreme Court handed down its verdict in Town of Greece v. Galloway, legalizing legislative prayer before meetings of local government, one county supervisor in Virginia had an inspiration: Henceforth, prayer should be all Christian, all the time.

“The freedom of religion doesn’t mean that every religion has to be heard,” Roanoke County Supervisor Al Bedrosian told the Roanoke Times. “If we allow everything…where do you draw the line?”

Bedrosian went on to opine that Christian prayers should dominate because the country, in his view, was founded on that faith.

“I think America, pretty much from the Founding Fathers on, I think we have to say more or less that we’re a Christian nation with Christian ideology,” he stated. “If we’re a Christian nation, we need to move toward our Christian heritage.”

 Other supervisors were quick to point out that they don’t agree with Bedrosian and said a change in official policy was unlikely. But his confusion is indicative of the fallout from the May 5 ruling in Greece, a decision that continues to reverberate around the nation.

The Greece case, sponsored by Am­ericans United, challenged a New York community’s practice of opening its meetings with mostly Christian prayers. Town officials insisted they had an open-door policy for prayer, but that most of the supplications just happened to be Christian.

AU, representing two local plaintiffs, Susan Galloway and Linda Steph­ens, filed suit against the town’s prayer policy. Although AU prevailed at the appeals court level, the Sup­reme Court reversed that decision, ruling 5-4 in favor of the town.

Since then, local governments have been left to figure what they can and cannot do concerning official prayers.

The situation in Roanoke was one of the more extreme reactions. As it’s currently written, the county’s policy allows representatives from any faith tradition, including non-theists, to deliver prayers and invocations at board meetings.

Bedrosian said he believes that policy deviates from America’s heritage as a “Christian nation” and agitated for a system in which county supervisors personally approve faith representatives – and he vowed to refuse to approve representatives from non-Christian faith traditions.

Americans United says Bedrosian is off base. In a letter sent to the county board, the group’s attorneys wrote, “In vowing to discriminate against non-Christians, Supervisor Bedrosian ignores what the Supreme Court actually said in Town of Greece v. Galloway.”

Unfortunately, Bedrosian isn’t the only one who’s unclear on the ruling. In North Carolina, officials in the tiny town of Dillsboro in the Great Smokey Mountains announced they’d begin offering prayers at town council meetings for the first time in the town’s history – and they don’t intend to be inclusive.

“They said as long as it’s what your town is used to. And we ain’t got nothing but Baptists in this town,” Dillsboro’s mayor, Mike Fitz­gerald, told a local newspaper.

Back in Virginia, Chesterfield County’s Board of Supervisors is also moving toward an exclusionary prayer policy that would violate constitutional standards. In response to the Greece ruling, the county board has begun to restrict prayer-giving to representatives of monotheistic religions, which excludes non-theists and members of some minority faiths.

A list of religious congregations approved to deliver prayers at county meetings notably lacks Chesterfield’s Sikh community, despite its strict adherence to monotheism. The county previously faced controversy in 2002 when it refused to allow a Wiccan priestess to deliver an invocation. The ensuing legal battle ended in 2005, when a federal court ruled in favor of the county’s exclusionary policy.

Chesterfield’s new policy is also being challenged by Americans Uni­ted, in conjunction with the American Civil Liberties Union’s Virginia affiliate. In a joint letter, the civil liberties watchdogs wrote, “Under Greece, Chesterfield County’s policy of inviting only ‘monotheistic’ clergy to deliver invocations cannot be reconciled.”

The letter also slammed the county’s policy of restricting prayer-giving to ordained clergy, which also excludes minority traditions. The missive observed, “Besides being unconstitutional, distinguishing among religions along these lines is not a task suited for government officials, who are not theologians.”

In some communities, members of minority faith communities are proactively challenging the possibility of exclusionary prayer policies by volunteering to deliver invocations at local government meetings. In Deerfield Beach, Fla., a self-identified Satanist, Chaz Stevens, has petitioned the city council for the right to open one of its forthcoming meetings with a prayer from that tradition.

“With the recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling ‘allowing prayer before Commission meetings’ and seeking the rights granted to others, I hereby am requesting I be allowed to open a Commission meeting praying for my God, my divine spirit, my Dude in Charge,” Stevens wrote. “Be advised. I am a Satanist.” (Stevens, who seems to enjoy employing an aggressive style, last year sought – and won – permission to erect a “Festivus pole” at the state capitol in response to sectarian Christmas displays.)

In Sussex County, Del., members of the county council held a closed-door meeting during which they reportedly discussed formulating a new prayer policy. The council’s former policy, which was to recite the Lord’s Prayer before every meeting, was struck down by a federal trial court in 2012 after Americans United filed suit.

             At least two members of the council, Vance Phillips and Sam Wilson, are eager to return to the old policy.

            “I can’t speak for the entire council, but Sam and I have already spoken and we would be in favor of returning to our 40-year tradition of opening meetings with The Lord’s Prayer,” Phillips told the Cape Gazette.

            In Carroll County, Md., commissioners also want to start praying again. The county had been under court order to stop using Christian prayers after a lawsuit filed by the American Humanist Association (AHA). A federal judge lifted an order blocking the official prayers after the Greece ruling was issued, but attorneys at the AHA say the case in Carroll County is different and are back in court.

Not all of the news is bad. Some city councils have reacted to the ruling by promoting inclusivity at their meetings, with or without the prompting of local minority faith communities. In North Dakota, the Sioux Falls City Council has agreed to allow a representative from the Siouxland Freethinkers to deliver a secular invocation later this summer. 

The mixed reaction to the ruling appears to reveal a pervasive lack of understanding over the correct application of Greece, and critics say the fault could lie in the high court’s ruling.

The majority opinion, written by Jus­tice Anthony M. Kennedy, argued that sectarian prayers used for ceremonial purposes were part of an American tradition that was accepted and even promoted by the Founding Fathers. In order to make this argument, Kennedy cited a 2012 book, Endowed By Our Creator: The Birth of Religious Freedom In America, by the University of Baltimore’s Michael I. Meyerson.

But there’s a problem: Meyerson says Kennedy misinterpreted his conclusion.

“What we don’t understand in today’s partisan environment was how careful and respectful the Framers were,” Meyerson told the Baltimore Sun. He further explained that the Con­stitution was deliberately drafted without sectarian language, which directly contradicts Kennedy’s assertion that the founders considered such language part of America’s political fabric.

Even some conservatives are concerned by Kennedy’s conclusions. Cal Thomas, a widely read columnist not known for liberalism, strongly criticized the justices’ Greece opinion in a recent piece. Thomas seemed especially bothered by the high court’s reliance on prayer as “ceremonial.”

“If prayer is largely ‘ceremonial’ and ‘traditional,’ then it has lost all meaning,” Thomas argued. “One might as well chant ‘2-4-6-8 who do we appreciate!’”

Thomas pointed out that the founders wrote the First Amendment to prevent the government from interfer­ing in church affairs. “God save (and put some common sense into) this honorable court and town councils everywhere,” he wrote. “Maybe we should pray, privately, toward that end.”

Americans United agrees. Its newly launched campaign, Operation Inclusion, advises town councils to follow Thomas’ advice and avoid potentially divisive prayers.

“We’d prefer they not pray at all,” said Beth Corbin, Americans United’s field director. “If they do, they run the risk of alienating people of minority faith traditions and non-believers who want to participate in local government.”

That risk is only increased when officials misinterpret Greece as justification for excluding religious minorities from delivering prayers and invocations, she added.

The campaign provides legal guidelines for citizens and local officials seeking to understand what the Greece ruling really means for legislative prayer. According to those guidelines, it’s still best practice for town councils and other local government bodies to avoid prayers. But, it adds, if officials do choose to pray, there are legal standards that must be met.

“Government offi­cials need to step in when and if outside speakers make statements that are hostile to religious minorities or nonbelievers. It likewise would be unconstitutional for government offi­cials themselves to open every meeting by delivering the Lord’s Prayer or any other prayer speci­fic to one faith tradition,” the guidelines read.

They also note that government bodies can’t ask citizens to participate in prayer. Additionally, they delineate the limits of the court’s ruling: school boards, for example, were not included and therefore still cannot open their public meetings with sectarian prayers. (See more about Operation Inclusion on AU’s website.)

Corbin told Church & State she hopes the guidelines will settle the controversy over legislative prayer.

“Government meetings may be divisive, but it shouldn’t be over religious belief – or non-belief,” she said. “The democratic process should bring people together for the benefit of their communities, not reinforce religious tensions.”

Corbin added that Operation Inclusion’s success will ride on the work of community activists concerned by the implications of the Greece ruling.

“We have more than 100,000 members and supporters,” she said. “They’re very concerned by the idea of public meetings beginning with prayers, and they will be watching their local officials to make sure they keep the standards still in place are upheld.”

Americans United isn’t the only organization concerned about the application of Greece; the Alliance Defending Freedom, a Religious Right outfit that sided against Americans United in the case, has launched its own campaign, “Free To Pray.” Their guide­lines encourage local officials to take advantage of the ruling and host sectarian prayers.

That’s the wrong approach, Corbin argues.

“True to our campaign’s name, our goal is to promote inclusion,” she said. “We don’t think anyone should feel intimidated or excluded at public government meetings.”