- Grove City, Pennsylvania

Local News

May 23, 2014

Will public prayer return?

Officials discuss high court's 5-4 decision

In a 5-4 vote, the U.S. Supreme Court affirmed uncensored public prayer on Monday - and some local officials have weighed in on the decision.

The high court ruled in favor of a town council in Greece, N.Y., outside of Rochester, which was sued in 2008 by the Americans United for Separation of Church and State on behalf of residents Susan Galloway and Linda Stephens.

Offended by the predominant Christian prayers at the council meetings, the women - who are atheist and Jewish - claimed they were unconstitutional. Greece is primarily Christian, but tried to bring in other religious groups to pray when the women complained. Alliance Defending Freedom argued for the town, stating that prayer by governmental bodies has always been constitutional.

The high court ruling overturned the Second U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New York, which formerly ruled against Greece's prayers as endorsing Christianity. The Supreme Court decision is expected to have an impact on other legislative prayer cases in the nation.

Mercer Mayor Ross Vernon plans to tell borough council of the ruling at its next meeting and recommend reinstating its prayer tradition.

"We need to get back to that," he said. Mercer council stopped saying public prayers about 10 years ago amid fears of lawsuits "over whatever the federal government-level started griping about - that included the (Christmas) ornaments around courthouses," said Vernon, who had been a councilman for over 25 years.

"We stopped praying and that's a shame," he said. "There's separation of church and state, but this country was still based on religion."

Grove City council has continued its tradition of praying at the start of meetings, which has never been challenged, said council President George Pokrant. "I think it allows us to remember why we are there, clear our minds and do what's best for the borough and people that we represent. It is in no way to influence any religious practice or type," he added. "I respect and agree with the ruling upheld by the Supreme Court."

As a Grove City council member, Mary K. Mattocks does not believe she can "force my belief on anyone," she said. "But as long as our prayers are non-denominational, I don't see anything wrong with it."

Council members always pray for the U.S. military and have recently prayed for a hospitalized member. "It (publicly) lifts people up," Mattocks said. "Personally, I'm glad we do it out loud."

Prayer at Slippery Rock council "just hasn't come up," said councilman Ken Harris, who has been mayor.

"I don't know if anyone on council would propose this step for us. There's always someone in the public that could take the matter up, but I don't have a sense of what would happen if it came up."

He is uncomfortable with the idea of praying in a municipal setting, although "I'm a church member," Harris said. "It's engaging the public in a formal religious exercise that compels people that can't accept the idea of the Holy to listen and participate, while others are carrying out their faith in a public forum."

If a governing body allows for prayer, members of a ministerium or faith community are often called in to give the invocation.

"I've not been at any such meetings. ... I hope it doesn't come up here," Harris added. "I think people can privately pray any time and any place they want to."

Grove City council members take turns praying, which no one has ever resisted, Mattocks said. The borough secretary makes up a rotation schedule and "when the agenda comes out, then we know who does the prayer," she said. "It's very straightforward."

"My general observation is that the prayer we offer at council is ceremonial, to set the tone and atmosphere of cooperation, collaboration and collegiality," Pokrant said.

It's been almost two years since a majority of Grove City Area School Board members voted for a moment of silence over its tradition of public prayer at the start of meetings.

Solicitor Tim McNickle - who observed the tradition for over 40 years - recommended the change because of similar school prayer cases that had been defeated in court. He stated that Grove City was "becoming the minority" in having prayer at meetings.

McNickle believed Grove City schools would not win if faced with a challenge, and could be drained of financial resources. The 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals - which governs this area - had ruled against prayer at public school settings, he added. 

School director Scott Somora was adamantly against the change. "I am encouraged by the Supreme Court ruling in the case of Greece v Galloway," he said. "The ruling opens the door to the possibility of the Grove City Area School District Board of Directors to reconsider restoring our tradition of having an opening prayer prior to the start of our public board meetings."

McNickle wasn't so certain. "These opinions are typically very fact specific with the type of governmental entity they are dealing with," he said. McNickle did not read the specifics of the decision to see if it would reach a broader municipal audience than a town council, he said. A school district is considered a municipal body. 

The Freedom From Religion Foundation confronted Grove City schools about its prayer tradition, calling it unconstitutional, making McNickle and the administration concerned about a potential lawsuit.

At that time, "I think many of us pondered what would happen if that were brought to council," Pokrant noted. The Supreme Court ruling "provides a backdrop of support in the highest court. I think that is the key to all of it, that they weighed in on it ... and ruled it was okay."

Monday's decision was upheld by Justice Anthony Kennedy, who wrote an opinion for the majority vote, as well as Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Samuel Alito, Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas. Opposing it were Justices Elena Kagan, Stephen Breyer, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Sonia Sotomayor. The ruling leaned on an 1983 decision by the Supreme Court that upheld an opening prayer in the Nebraska legislature. Kennedy wrote that prayers are a national tradition, and should be seen as ceremonial. Otherwise, forcing spiritual leaders to take out references to Jesus and other sectarian figures during prayer is censorship. He noted that government couldn't stifle a religious practice any more than it could prescribe one.

In 1992, Kennedy wrote an opinion that a Christian prayer given at a high school graduation violated the Constitution. In the Greece, N.Y. decision, he said that the age of the audience was different, and participants can step out of the room if they do not like the prayer - unlike students who were required to attend school.

Kagan disagreed because Greece involved "ordinary citizens," she said, "and the invocations given - directly to those citizens - were predominantly sectarian in content." They were also held in small settings where youths could be present. The American Civil Liberties Union, which filed a brief supporting Galloway and Stephens, called the decision "official religious favoritism."

Counsel for the town of Greece disagreed. "Opening public meetings with prayer is a cherished freedom that the authors of the Constitution themselves practiced. Speech censors should have no power to silence volunteers who pray for their communities just as the Founders did," said ADF senior counsel David Courtman. "In America, we tolerate a diversity of opinions and beliefs; we don't silence people or try to separate what they say from what they believe."

The Obama administration supported the majority decision.

Harris said he wasn't certain how other council members in Slippery Rock feel about the ruling. "But I wouldn't be entirely surprised if news about the court decision stimulates people to make a proposal for more peaceful, quiet or blessed meetings," he noted.

"I do believe our faith and beliefs do help guide and direct our lives in all aspects, and you don't leave it at the door but carry it with you," Pokrant added.

With Monday's ruling, Vernon believes Mercer council would "proudly implement (prayer) again ... but we'll see."

The Associated Press and other national reports contributed to this report. The case is Greece v. Galloway, 12-696.

Published May 10, 2014, in Allied News. Pick up a copy at 201 A Erie St., Grove City.

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