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Supreme Court’s Decision Allowing Prayers at Government Meetings Reverberates Locally

| May 5, 2014

It's like old times in Bunnell. (© FlaglerLive)

It’s like old times in Bunnell. (© FlaglerLive)

The U.S. Supreme Court’s 5-4 decision today allowing explicitly religious prayers at local government meetings had two direct connections to Palm Coast and Bunnell. So the ruling had particular resonance locally—happily for some, not so happily for others.

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The case was brought to the Supreme Court by Americans United for the Separation for Church and state, a national, Washington, D.C.-based organization whose Board of Trustees Chairman, Merrill Shapiro, is a rabbi who lives in Palm Coast. (Shapiro also chairs of the FlaglerLive board of directors.) Shapiro was not celebrating Monday.

“We were very proud to have our name on this case and to have brought it to the Supreme Court,” Shapiro said. “In the end this has loomed very large for our organization and we are very disappointed in the outcome. We had some hope, but in the end, we’re disappointed.”

The case also had a direct bearing on Bunnell government. The Bunnell City Commission is the only local government that begins its meetings with an explicitly Christian prayer, a prayer usually delivered by one of the city commissioners (all of whom are Christians), though on occasion a local pastor is invited to do so. The city has never had a prayer or invocation by a non-Christian. Bunnell is also the only town or government entity to directly sponsor an annual Day of Prayer, as it did last week, inviting clerics, church groups and local officials to participate in something similar to a 90-minute revival on the city’s clock. City commissioners have proudly and consistently defended both initiatives. On Tuesday, two of its most ardently religious commissioners were jubilant.

“I know that God is in control,” Commissioner John Rogers said. “He’s sitting on his throne.” It was at Rogers’s behest that the city started the Day of Prayer three years ago, when then-City Manager Armando Martinez, looking to build bridges with Rogers (who was not an ally) said he wanted to start the event so Bunnell could be “God’s city.”

“We’re asking for guidance, for clarity and peace from God the father. I don’t see a problem with it,” Rogers said.

To Tucker, today’s ruling “reflects what the founders had in mind. They wanted to not have any church established by government, so they wanted to keep church and government separate, but they didn’t want to keep government and religion separate. I think that’s all the city of Bunnell is doing. I’m thinking we’re falling in line with what the Supreme Court has said now is OK.”

But in the same interview, Tucker went far beyond today’s decision, which while allowing specifically Christian prayers, also strained to be includive, and to reject any notion of prayers that would seem exclusionary, or would be made to seem preferential by, for example, projecting a Christian god as superior to other gods, or the absence of god. Tucker, however, made clear that prayers are meant to be offered to a Christian god specifically.

“Our society has certain basic moral principles that it follows,” Tucker said. “They’re based in that Judeo-Christian belief, and we believe in God. That’s pretty well the truth. So if we have somebody that’s an atheist, how is an atheist going to invoke the spirit if you will of God, if he doesn’t believe in God? So what spirit is he going to invoke on the city of Bunnell? I don’t know. That’s a puzzle.” And if he doesn’t invoke god, “what good is it? When we say a prayer, as the New Testament tells us, we pray to a father in heaven, so that’s to whom we’re praying. If we’re not we’re praying to that father in heaven, then to whom or to what are we praying? It’s generally understood that we’re going to have a prayer and it’s going to be said to our father in heaven.”

Merrill Shapiro. (© FlaglerLive)

Merrill Shapiro. (© FlaglerLive)

That’s precisely why groups like Americans United for the Separation of Church and State oppose such explicit prayers at town meetings. “It tells a certain class of citizen that they do not have full standing, full regard, are not held in the same esteem that members of the class to whom the prayer is important is addressed,” Shapiro said, “so that prayers that are offered sometimes in Jesus’s name or somewhat are overtly Christian tell the Jewish citizens of Bunnell for example, the Muslim citizens of Bunnell, the Buddhist, the Hindus, that they don’t have the same whole standing that their Christian neighbors have, and it divides our country rather than unites it.”

Shapiro was echoing Justice Elena Kagan’s dissent, where she states that prayers at meetings could not be reconciled “with the First Amendment’s promise that every citizen, irrespective of her religion, owns an equal share of her government.”

The case the Supreme Court decided today originates in the small town of Greece, N.Y., which holds monthly town meetings (Bunnell has twice-monthly meetings). Local clergy is invited to offer the opening prayer, when the audience is asked to stand, bow, and pray along. The prayer is not vetted beforehand. Anyone may request to give an invocation, but from 1999 to 2007, every prayer was Christian. Residents Susan Galloway—who is Jewish—and Linda Stephens—an atheist—complained and filed the suit that was decided today. Along the way, the city held a few non-Christian prayer services, but quickly returned to its all-Christian practices. A federal appeals court found the practice too obviously Christian. The Supreme Court disagreed, relying to a great extent on its own decision 30 years ago ratifying prayers and invocations that start legislative sessions.

Justice Anthony Kennedy’s majority opinion diminished to the point of irrelevance the question of whether prayers at public meetings were a violation of the Establishment clause of the First Amendment. In sum, too many prayers are being recited against too little evidence that the prayers in any way reflect any government’s desire to “establish” a particular religion.

And Kennedy went further than the precedent from 30 years ago, saying that prayers could well be sectarian—they could be explicitly Catholic or invoke the Christian god—but he also set out a series of tests. The prayers could not be coercive. The prayers could also not be included in the business portion of a local government meeting and have to be confined to the ceremonial part of the agenda—during proclamations, commendations and such—so as not to give the impression that prayer has bearing on any decision.  The government panel is not allowed to dictate what is in a prayer, nor is the government itself to be prayed for. The prayers could not disparage other faiths. And prayers had to be delivered in rooms filled mostly with adults. The court made that distinction because it did not retreat from another precedent banning prayers at school events where audiences are mostly under-age, and where such prayers may have a more coercive effect than on adults.

But such nuances rarely get heard, or enacted, beyond the main outlines of big decisions like today’s, and that outline is being seen in Bunnell as an endorsement to carry on. Rogers, however, noted that he and his colleagues may want to have an open discussion about how to proceed in light of the decision—and whether to continue the practice of proffering prayers themselves or inviting others to do it. Either way, Rogers says he sees no problem.

“I want to thank God that the Supreme Court ruled 5-4 that Christian prayers given before meetings in the New York town council did not violate our constitutional rights,” Rogers said. “Opening the city of Bunnell meetings with prayer is our freedoms, as our founders of our great nation themselves practices. We have the right to pray for our communities just as our founding fathers did for theirs.”

Shapiro suggested that the Bunnell commission “needs to recognize that in no way, size, shape or form is the city commission of Bunnell the town of Bunnell. The town of Bunnell is made up of people, and people have different ways of thinking and different ideas about whether or not there is a god, and commissioners of Bunnell should never confuse themselves with the population, with the citizenry of Bunnell. They are their representatives, and as such they should recognize that not everybody in Bunnell agrees that there should be a god. When they express the fact that there is a god, they are not representing everybody in Bunnell, and I don’t know that for a fact but I say it with great certainty.”

Supreme Court’s 5-4 Decision on Prayers at Government Meetings (2014)

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22 Responses for “Supreme Court’s Decision Allowing Prayers at Government Meetings Reverberates Locally”

  1. Nancy N. says:

    Thank you Rabbi Shapiro and AU for standing up for the constitutional rights of all of us who feel sidelined and excluded every time “our” government starts an event with a prayer that says to us that our beliefs are not welcome. And who feel coerced to either sit silently and pretend to participate, or make a spectacle by removing ourselves – thus prejudicing the majority of the event’s participants against you. Citizens should not have to make that choice to either stand by their beliefs or maximize their chances of being heard by their government.

    Unfortunately, this outcome was predictable. The Roberts court has been making a habit of shredding the Constitution in favor of moving us towards a theocracy.

  2. Anonymous says:

    How about if I want to start government meeting with a Muslim prayer or Buddhist chant? Should I be given equal time? Or do I only get to choose what prayer is uttered if I am an elected official who happens to be moderating the public meeting? How about if I want to worship the carrot in my refrigerator or read a treatise on Atheism…Do I get to demand equal time for MY religious/non-religious views? I thought government meetings were supposed to be geared towards conducting government business–without promoting a specific religious bias. This is a giant step backwards our country. I do not know why we keep pandering to people who have a personal bias and a vested interest in publically promoting their own beliefs over the objections of others who don’t happen to share them or may be offended by them. Christian prayers should not be forced down the throats of anyone wishing to attend a government/taxpayer sponsored meeting or event. The White House dropped the ball on this one by not supporting the fundamental principle of Separation of Church and State and, by failing to support that crucial concept, may end up losing a portion of their base.

    • Johnny Taxpayer says:

      What is it you think the White House should have done?

      • Nancy N. says:

        I’m not anonymous, but I can tell you what the White House SHOULDN’T have done that it did – file a brief with the court supporting the Town of Greece opening its meetings with a Christian prayer. With that brief, the White House came down squarely on the side of government-endorsed religion, and against the principle of separation of church and state.

      • A.S.F. says:

        Johnny Taxpayer says–The White House failed to support the suit against public prayer.

  3. Not me says:

    “To Tucker, today’s ruling “reflects what the founders had in mind. They wanted to not have any church established by government, so they wanted to keep church and government separate, but they didn’t want to keep government and religion separate. I think that’s all the city of Bunnell is doing. I’m thinking we’re falling in line with what the Supreme Court has said now is OK.” ”

    I apologize for this “Christian’s” ignorance and misguided principals. These words make no sense.

    Being a Christian myself, I find it so hard to beleive the ability for this man to twist the words, beliefs, foundations and principles of our forefathers is disgusting. I am confident he would reinstate slavery if he could too – and I am white female!

    As much as our Palm Coast City Council is in need of being replaced, as is the back-woods, good ‘ole boys, “mens only” WASP club of Bunnell, need to be bucked out too.

    Reading about each of you and your statements disgusts me to no end. And now, you insult our faith with your words? Do not include all Christians with your speech. I want nothing to do with you.

    • Will says:

      Not me, just a clarification, Two of the five Bunnell commissioners are female and one of them is African American.

      Otherwise I agree completely.

  4. Love Your Neighbor says:

    Matthew 6:5-6

    5 “And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. 6 But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.

  5. Anonymouse says:

    Eagerly looking forward to a muslim call to prayer next meeting.

  6. Johnny Taxpayer says:

    How exactly does the reading of a prayer at the opening of a city counsel meeting establish a religion?

    • A.S.F. says:

      @Johnny Taxpayer Says–Because it is a recitation of prayer in a public place, at a government and taxpayer supported event. And when you invoke Jesus Christ in the prayer, it very much does personalize what religious sect is being publically sanctioned. You want to defend Freedom of Speech? How would you feel about someone giving a Nazi salute while presiding on the podium? Exactly where is this “slippery slope” supposed to end” (or, will it?) Or, should we just make it OK for CERTAIN, CAREFULLY CHOSEN religious agendas to be served in public? And who, exactly, should get to choose which ones those will be?

    • Nancy N. says:

      Johnny Taxpayer – By tacitly endorsing a religion as the “right” one. By tacitly endorsing religion, period.

      I’m going to go out on a limb and guess you are a Christian, so you’ve never been made uncomfortable at a public event by prayer in the U.S. But how would you feel, if every time you attended a public event of your government’s, the group was led in praise of Allah before business could begin. Seriously, be honest. You would feel uncomfortable, excluded, and like you didn’t belong and certainly weren’t welcome.

      There’s also the issue that having a prayer puts event attendees in a difficult situation if they do not believe the same as the prayer being presented. They either have to compromise their beliefs and pretend to take part, sit quietly and obviously not take part and be uncomfortable, or leave the room and make it blatantly obvious they are not taking part. You can’t pretend that won’t affect the way these people are viewed by the people who ARE taking part. If the people who don’t take part then have to address the meeting or petition the council, or whatever – their reputation has then been compromised in the eyes of the others present before the event even starts. Prayer participation becomes a kind of litmus test for whether you are the right kind of person or not to the others in the room who do take part in the prayer.

      America is made up of all kinds of people with all kinds of beliefs. The Constitution is supposed to guarantee that all of us are included in public life, regardless of our beliefs, and that the state doesn’t offer preferential treatment to one religion (or religion at all) over another. And yet, as an atheist, I am routinely made into a second-class citizen by my own government. Did you know there are at least 6 states where it isn’t even legal for me to hold public office because I don’t believe in a higher being? Even in places where it is legal for atheists to hold office, I defy you to find a candidate that isn’t out there wearing their “faith” on their sleeve while campaigning because being a church-going devout believer is an unofficial requirement for public office. If I remember correctly, there is ONE member of Congress who is out as being an atheist, despite the fact that we make up at least 10% of the population. There are more out gay men in Congress than atheists! For heaven’s sake, the President of the United States, who can’t go anywhere without a major military operation and who has the most time consuming job on the planet, can’t skip a week of church without getting harangued in the media.

      This should have been an open and shut case at the Supreme Court – and a generation ago it would have been. But the extreme right has started turning this country into a theocracy and I’m terrified where that is headed. Some of the religious leaders associated with Michele Bachmann, Ted Cruz, and Rick Perry are Christian Dominionists, who believe in execution for sinners who commit offenses like adultery, blasphemy, and sodomy. How’d you like to live in their world?

  7. RP says:

    As a Christian minister and Army Veteran here in the County, I have no problem with prayer in any setting….provided ministers of other faith groups get the same protection as I do. I may not agree with other faith groups theologically, but the law protects all citizens, regardless of faith, or lack of.

  8. A.S.F. says:

    I wonder–If we give ALL religions a chance to utter their prayers at the start of public meetings, will there be enough time for any real GOVERNMENT business?

  9. rickg says:

    Go ahead and pray to the cloud being… It ain’t going to help… There is no god and god was invented by humans… #wastetime

  10. Max Awesomeness says:

    You want prayer before a public meeting, you had better offer equal opportunities for other faiths than just christian ones to do so.

  11. think about it says:

    Every time one pledges allegiance to the flag or sings along with the national anthem you are in fact participating in prayer and worship.

    • Anonymous says:

      @think about it says–That is true. And that is the reason most (perhaps not private) schools no longer start off their day with the pledge of allegiance. And singing the national anthem at, let’s say a ball game, while I may not strictly condone it, is not as offensive. They are not conducting government/educational business there.

  12. think about it says:

    However the government agencies represent the flag and national anthem, so truly one cannot separate the two if you do in fact give your allegiance to the government. The US government based its foundation off of what IT deemed to be Christian worship. Separation of church and state has nothing to do with not talking about religion or worship in a governmental setting otherwise religious cases wouldn’t be handled in the supreme court they would be handled in a church and you wouldn’t have priest or chaplains or religious leaders of any denomination in the military or white house conducting any religious business whatsoever. Once again man cherry picking as to what worship is. And as far as you not being offended by the pledge or national anthem at a ball game, that’s how YOU feel someone else may feel differently yet and still it takes place.

    • A.S.F. says:

      @think about it says–Once again, people like YOU are cherry-picking in favor of their Christian beliefs. The founding fathers happened to be Christian but they were progressive enough to write the concept of Separation of Church and State into the fundamental fabric of our nation’s Constitution. The founding fathers also wore britches and three cornered hats, Should all of us continue to wear that exact attire forever? Would not choosing to do so make us less patriotic? I think the founding fathers got something that Conservatives seem unable to grasp. There IS no absolutely fixed document that can govern a country, word for word, for all time. The basic concepts of freedom and justice are what matter. We have Amendments to the Constitution for that reason. And too many people use their bibles and the Constitution like cattle-prods to keep other people in line with their chosen beliefs, rather than using them as guidelines to promote tolerance and true understanding.

  13. A.S.F. says:

    Since the recent Supreme Court ruling, some jurisdictions, which had stopped invoking the name of Jesus while the suit was pending (and because citizens of that jurisdiction had protested and sued to stop them) have already begun their public prayer sessions again. They like to defend themselves by saying that they are not proselytizing, so no one should mind. Here’s the point: People DO mind! That’s why members of that jurisdiction protested and went to court over it. So, I guess the prayer leaders really don’t give much of a darn WHAT the public really thinks. It’s all about what THEY believe is right and what makes THEM, along with their LIKE-MINDED constituents, feel comfortable. When you really don’t care about how your actions in regards to your religious beliefs affects others, you are much more likely to be the type of person who WOULD proselytize, in whatever way you can get away with it, subtly or otherwise. A little birdie in the sky tells me that the authentic Jesus, who had great tolerance and compassion towards others, would not have approved of that kind of insensitivity behavior towards others–and especially not when it is being perpetrated in his name.

  14. Sherry Epley says:

    Bravo ASF!

    This is not about religious freedom. . . it is about holding up Christianity as the “official” religion! Oh yes, that religion which has historically lead to atrocities such as the Spanish Inquisition. The “Roberts” supreme court continues to pass down “politically slanted” decisions that are destroying our country from the inside.

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