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October 31, 2014

Alaska Borough Assembly Gets It Right on Legislative Prayer

The U.S. Supreme Court’s recent leg­isla­tive prayer deci­sion (Greece v. Gal­loway) gen­er­ally sanc­tions sec­tar­ian prayers before alaska courthousemeet­ings of local leg­isla­tive bod­ies except for the most egre­gious cir­cum­stances. The opinion, however, does not require local or state legislatures to have opening prayers.

Rather, that decision is solely in a legislative body’s discretion. On October 20th the Ketchikan Gateway Borough, Alaska Assembly made the right call on this issue by voting down 5-2 an ordinance that would have added opening prayers to regular meeting agendas.

ADL agrees with the Assembly’s decision because such opening prayers convey an exclusionary message – particularly to religious minorities – at meetings of local government bodies where ordinary citizens of diverse faiths or no faith seek recourse from their public officials.

If the dissenters on the Assembly want to provide a prayer opportunity at public meetings, the most appropriate and inclusive practice is a moment of silence.  It would allow all Assembly members and constituents who want to pray to do so silently without dividing the community along religious lines.


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October 3, 2014

Sectarian Legislative Prayer – Walking In The Religious Minority’s Shoes

The U.S. Supreme Court’s recent legislative prayer decision (Greece v. Galloway) generally sanctions sectarian prayers before meetings of local legislative bodies except for the most egregious circumstances.  In opposing the Court’s decision, Justice Elana Kagan astutely concluded that “[w]hen the citizens of this country approach their government, they do so only as Americans, not as members of one faith or another.  And that means that even in a partly legislative body, they should not confront government-sponsored worship that divides them along religious lines.”  At a recent county commission meeting, a local commissioner may have experienced the lesson of Justice Kagan’s admonition.seal-of-escambia-county

The Escambia County, FL Commission allows sectarian invocations at its public meetings by a community member of any faith or religion.  At the September 25th Commission meeting, David Suhor, who is Pagan, recited a pagan prayer song “calling of the directions north, east, south and west.”  Regarding his prayer, Mr. Suhor later stated “[i]n a way I would like for other people to experience what it’s like when I go to a meeting and am asked to pray against my conscience.”

Mr. Suhor’s prayer apparently offended at least one person in the room. According to a news report, County Commissioner Wilson Robertson, “left the room because of his Christian beliefs,” and he stated “[p]eople may not realize it, but when we invite someone a minister to pray they are praying for the county commissioners for us to make wise decisions and I’m just not going to have a pagan or satanic minister pray for me.”

ADL opposes sectarian legislative prayer practices because of the religious exclusion and division resulting from them – particularly for religious minorities.  If the commissioner does not want a community member to pray for him in a faith that offends his conscience, perhaps he and other commission members should adopt a moment of silence policy or at least a non-sectarian invocation policy.

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August 28, 2014

Town of Greece’s New Invocation Policy Excludes Religious Minorities

The U.S. Supreme Court’s recent permissive legislative prayer decision (Greece v. Galloway) allows for sectarian invocations at meetings of local legislative bodies. Opening prayer practices, however, are not without limit. The decision requires that a local legislative body must implement a non-discrimination policy with respect to prayer givers.  The Town of Greece, New York –  a party to the Supreme Court case – recently adopted a new Town Board invocation policy.  This policy certainly violates the spirit of the Greece decision’s non-discrimination mandate, but it is an open question whether it  actually violates it.supreme-court-civil-rights

The new policy allows private citizens to solemnize the proceedings of the Town Board by offering a “prayer, reflective moment of silence, or a short solemnizing message.”  However, the person providing the solemnizing message must be an appointed representative of  “an assembly that regularly meet[s] for the primary purpose of sharing a religious perspective.”  The assembly must either be located within Greece, or it can be located outside of town if a resident regularly attends the assembly and requests its inclusion on an official “Assemblies List.”

The term “religious perspective” certainly encompasses minority faiths and non-believers.  Indeed, the U.S. Supreme Court has repeatedly ruled that atheism and ethical humanism are sincerely held religious beliefs.  However, while there may be Atheists, Buddhists, Ethical Humanists, Jews, Muslims, Sikhs or other religious minorities residing in Greece, they may not have a congregation within or proximate to town.  So the new policy effectively deprives religious minorities from participating in the invocation opportunity.   This is one reason why ADL views legislative prayer practices as divisive and poor public policy.  If the Town of Greece truly wants to be inclusive and live up to the spirit of the Supreme Court’s non-discrimination requirement, it should give all residents a true opportunity to solemnize Town Board proceedings.

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