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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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November 30, 2012 1

Renewed Concerns About “Legislative Prayer”

As we approach 2013, the 30th anniver­sary of the U.S. Supreme Court’s deci­sion on leg­isla­tive prayer, the issue has come alive again.

Thirty years ago, in an ami­cus curiae brief sub­mit­ted to the U.S. Supreme Court oppos­ing the Nebraska Legislature’s prac­tice of des­ig­nat­ing a chap­lain to open its ses­sions with a prayer, ADL noted that the prac­tice was not only uncon­sti­tu­tional but unwise, because it would be polit­i­cally divi­sive.  The Court nev­er­the­less upheld the prac­tice in Marsh v. Cham­bers, carv­ing out a lim­ited excep­tion to the First Amendment’s Estab­lish­ment Clause, which man­dates the sep­a­ra­tion of church and state, for non-sectarian prayers.

Ever since, lower courts have wres­tled with whether and how prayers can be non-sectarian, and recently there has been a new wave of cases.  Courts in at least five states are now con­sid­er­ing var­i­ous forms of prayers before state and local leg­isla­tive bod­ies, county and/or city com­mis­sions, and it may just be a mat­ter of time before the U.S. Supreme Court revis­its the issue.   It has, in fact, become polit­i­cally divi­sive.  When and if a case reaches the Supreme Court, the Court should pro­hibit such “leg­isla­tive prayer” once and for all.

Over the past three decades, courts have already issued widely diverg­ing opin­ions, essen­tially con­firm­ing that a prayer can never truly be non-sectarian.  Some courts have deter­mined that prayers in the name of Jesus, Abra­ham, or Mohammed are not sec­tar­ian or do not advance reli­gion.  Of course, even a seem­ingly non-denominational prayer is likely to cause divi­sions among Chris­tians, Jews and Mus­lims.  And most courts have failed to con­sider that any such prayer would exclude adher­ents of  poly­the­is­tic or East­ern faiths such as Hin­duism or  Bud­dhism, not to men­tion the grow­ing seg­ment of Amer­i­can soci­ety that iden­ti­fies as human­ist or atheist. 

Leg­isla­tive prayer is not only divi­sive, but also a dis­trac­tion from the job of gov­ern­ing that can end up in costly lit­i­ga­tion.  If leg­isla­tive bod­ies deem it nec­es­sary to sol­em­nize their ses­sions, the best prac­tice would be a moment of silence.  It allows offi­cials and cit­i­zens to silently pray or med­i­tate in the faith or beliefs of their choos­ing, with­out gov­ern­ment offi­cials con­vey­ing any actual or per­ceived mes­sage of reli­gious pref­er­ence or exclusion.

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