Ruling allows prayer at meetings


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"James Madison is probably turning over in his grave."
Former Councilman Bob Nolan reacting to the Supreme Court's decision this week to allow Christian prayer at public meetings

BY HEMA EASLEY
Typically the township council starts its meetings with the Pledge of Allegiance and occasionally a moment of silence if someone requests it. Then it gets down to business.

Now this six-member council could consider whether to include prayers to the agenda after the Supreme Court Monday upheld decidedly Christian prayers at the start of council meetings in municipalities across the country.

Mayor Bettina Bieri said she had no personal preference in the matter and that the decision would be left to the council. No one, including members of the public, had raised the issue of prayers in recent years, she said.

“I would be very neutral,” said Bieri who votes only if there is a tie. “My job is to do what the public wants.”

The Supreme Court's ruling
The 5-4 ruling along ideological lines stems from a Greece, New York, case where two women objected to prayers at town meetings on grounds they violated the First Amendment clause that prohibits the establishment of religion. The town had included prayers for almost 10 years, offered almost exclusively by Christian clergymen, a practice the Jewish and atheist complainants objected to.

The court ruled prayers were in line with long national traditions, and that the content of the prayers was not significant as long as they did not denigrate non-Christians or try to proselytize.

Writing for the majority, Justice Anthony Kennedy said that forcing clergy to scrub the prayers of references to Jesus Christ and other sectarian religious figures would turn officials into censors. Instead, Kennedy said, the prayers should be seen as ceremonial and in keeping with the nation's traditions.

“The inclusion of a brief, ceremonial prayer as part of a larger exercise in civic recognition suggests that its purpose and effect are to acknowledge religious leaders and the institutions they represent, rather than to exclude or coerce nonbelievers,” Kennedy said.

Justice Elena Kagan, writing for the court's four liberal justices, said, “I respectfully dissent from the court’s opinion because I think the Town of Greece’s prayer practices violate that norm of religious equality — the breathtakingly generous constitutional idea that our public institutions belong no less to the Buddhist or Hindu than to the Methodist or Episcopalian.”

An attorney weighs in
Gary Greenwald, an Orange County, New York, attorney and political commentator, was less than thrilled with the decision. He said the Supreme Court ruling was a misreading of the difference between religion and government. He supported Justice Kagan’s opinion.

“No meeting, state run, should ever support any organized religion whether Buddhist, Hindu. Christian or Jewish,” said Greenwald who interpreted the decision as supporting Christianity. “It’s an absolutely wrong decision.”

Greenwald said he didn’t oppose prayer as long as it was innocuous and did not attach to any organized religion.

“No religion should mean no religion,” he said.

Bieri said should the council chose to have a prayer before council meetings, it would be safer to have a generic prayer rather than specific language from a particular religion. Having prayers from different religions on a rotating basis could also be an issue.

“I have my own belief system; a lot of faith,” said Bieri. “But my role as mayor is not to promote my faith … this time I have no feedback from residents. I don’t have a pulse on what option they would prefer.”

The public weighs in
Several local residents were open about their views on prayers in public settings.

“I’m not here to pray. I’m here for a council meeting,” said former councilman Bob Nolan. “So I’d probably just sit there until they’re done. James Madison is probably turning over in his grave. You get on a slippery slope with this sort of thing.”

Doris Aaronson, a regular at all council meetings since 1980, was open to the idea.

“I am fine with it as long as it’s general and non-sectarian. I don’t see anything wrong with being thankful for what you have,” she said. “But if it’s insulting to people or makes people feel uncomfortable, then it shouldn’t be. Township meetings should be for everyone in the township.”

She added, “A moment of silence would be fine, but a general prayer of thanks not involving any particular religion would be fine too. Too often we don’t stop and think of what we have.”

Stacy, who gave only her first name, is a regular at all council meetings.

“If they’re going to do it, they should do what they did in the past. Bring in someone from different churches so it’s non-denominational. I have no problem, as long as it’s short and sweet.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report. Additional reporting by Linda Smith Hancharick

What do you think about the Supreme Court's ruling? Do you think West Milford should institute prayer at its meetings? Go to westmilfordmessenger.com and let us know your thoughts.

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