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October 3, 2014 0

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 0

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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August 7, 2014 0

Legislative Prayer Ruling Does Not Permit Prayers by Local Lawmakers

In the recent Greece v. Gal­loway deci­sion, the U.S. Supreme Court expanded the types of open­ing prayers or invo­ca­tions that may be given at pub­lic meet­ings of leg­isla­tive bod­ies.  Accord­ing to the Court, clergy or com­mu­nity mem­bers can deliver sec­tar­ian prayers before munic­i­pal and county boards, coun­cils, and com­mis­sions.  How­ever, a fed­eral court in Vir­ginia has just deter­mined that the Greece deci­sion does not give carte blanche for invo­ca­tions by mem­bers of a Board of Super­vi­sors at pub­lic meetings.town-hall-image

Based on the Greece deci­sion, a super­vi­sor asked the court to revoke an order bar­ring sec­tar­ian prayers by Board mem­bers at pub­lic meet­ings.  Due to sig­nif­i­cant fac­tual dif­fer­ences between the Greece deci­sion and this case, Hud­son v. Pitt­syl­va­nia County, the court refused.

In his deci­sion, Judge Michael Urban­ski indi­cated that the Greece decision’s over­ar­ch­ing prin­ci­ple is that gov­ern­ment offi­cials “can­not dic­tate the con­tent of prayers offered at local gov­ern­ment meet­ings.” But that would be the exact result of revok­ing the order.  Unlike the Greece case, hav­ing super­vi­sors offer the invo­ca­tions would deny peo­ple of other faiths that oppor­tu­nity.  Also unlike Greece, super­vi­sors often direct cit­i­zens to par­tic­i­pate in prayers by ask­ing them to stand for invocations.

Based on these fac­tual dis­tinc­tions, the court appro­pri­ately con­cluded that “the active role of the … Board of Super­vi­sors in lead­ing the prayers, and, impor­tantly dic­tat­ing their con­tent, is of con­sti­tu­tional dimen­sion and falls out­side the prayer prac­tices approved in Town of Greece.”

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