Area leaders react to Supreme Court decision on prayers

Ruling says municipalities can have prayer during meetings


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Typically the town council starts its meetings with a salute to the flag. Then it gets down to business.

But the council will discuss adding a prayer to the agenda after the Supreme Court on Monday upheld decidedly Christian prayers at the start of council meetings in municipalities across the country, declaring them in line with long national traditions though the country has grown more religiously diverse.

Mayor Paul Crowley said the council had never considered the issue but that he saw nothing wrong with a prayer at the start of meetings.

“A short prayer that was nondenominational would be appropriate,” Crowley said.

But he added cautiously, “New Jersey has all different faiths from all over. That’s why I feel it should be nondenominational.”

The 5-4 ruling along ideological lines stems from a Greece, N.Y., 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 content of the prayers is not significant as long as they do not denigrate non-Christians or try to win converts, the court said in the decision backed by its conservative majority.

Writing for the majority, Justice Anthony Kennedy said 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."

Crowley’s views coincided with Kagan’s. He said the town needed to be sensitive to agnostics and atheists.

“We don’t want to insult anyone or trample their beliefs,” he said.

Some other mayors were more welcoming of prayers in municipal buildings.

“I’m thrilled about it,” said Molly Ann Whilesmith of Sparta who has already been discussing it with members of her council. “Our forefathers didn’t envision that the separation of church and state precluded prayers” at public places.

Byram Mayor Jim Oscovitch said he would confer with the council in the coming weeks about what the Supreme Court ruling meant for the town.

Byram does not have prayers before town council meetings but invites clergy to recite an invocation at reorganization meetings held annually. So far, the town has had two such invocations, one delivered by a Methodist minister and the other by a member of the Byram Christian Fellowship.

“I’m a big supporter and a big fan of public prayers,” Oscovitch said. “If I know my constituents, the majority will be open to it … With the troubled time we have in this country, some prayer would be good.”

But Gary Greenwald, an Orange County attorney and political commentator, was less than thrilled with the ruling. He said the Supreme Court decision 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.

Phyllis Pfeifer of Vernon, a retired educator, said she believed prayer should be allowed everywhere because it pulls people together.

“Our country was founded on the Ten Commandments,” said Pfeiffer, offering her interpretation of the origins of the constitutions. “I think there is a morality that is lost” when prayers are precluded.

“The minority have determined what the majority can do,” she added.

But she said prayers at town meetings should be from all denominations, not just Christian.

“I’m not comfortable constantly with a Christian point of view,” said Pfeifer who identified herself as from a minority religion. “There is a reverence for God. You don’t have to go into details.”

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