WASHINGTON — It happens every week at meetings in towns, counties and cities nationwide. A lawmaker or religious leader leads a prayer before officials begin the business of zoning changes, contract approvals and trash pickup.
But citizens increasingly are taking issue with these prayers, some of which have been in place for decades. At least five lawsuits around the country — in California, Florida, Missouri, New York and Tennessee — actively are challenging pre-meeting prayers.
Lawyers on both sides say there is a new complaint almost weekly, though they don’t always end up in court. When they do, it seems even courts are struggling to draw the line over acceptable ways to pray. Some lawyers and lawmakers believe it’s only a matter of time before the Supreme Court will weigh in. The court previously declined to take on the issue, but lawyers in a New York case plan to ask the justices in December to revisit it. And even if the court doesn’t take that particular case, it could accept a similar one in the future.
Lawmakers who defend the prayers cite the nation’s founders and say they’re following a long tradition of prayer before public meetings. They say residents don’t have to participate and having a prayer adds solemnity to meetings and serves as a reminder to do good work.
“It’s a reassuring feeling,” said Lakeland, Fla., Mayor Gow Fields of his city’s prayers, which have led to an ongoing legal clash with an atheist group. The city commission’s meeting agenda now begins with a disclaimer that any prayer offered before the meeting is the “voluntary offering of a private citizen” and not being endorsed by the commission.
Citizens and groups made uncomfortable by the prayers say they’re fighting an inappropriate mix of religion and politics.
“It makes me feel unwelcome,” said Tommy Coleman, the son of a church pianist and a self-described secular humanist who is challenging pre-meeting prayers in Tennessee’s Hamilton County.
Coleman, 28, and Brandon Jones, 25, are urging the county to adopt a moment of silence at its weekly meeting rather than a prayer.
A number of groups are willing to help with complaints like those filed by Coleman and Jones. Annie Laurie Gaylor, the co-founder of the Wisconsin-based Freedom From Religion Foundation, said complaints about the prayers are among the most frequent her organization gets.
Gaylor’s organization sends out letters when it is contacted by citizens, urging lawmakers to discontinue the prayers. Other groups including the American Civil Liberties Union and the Washington-based Americans United for Separation of Church and State, send out similar letters.
Ian Smith, a lawyer with Americans United for Separation of Church and State, said his organization has gotten more complaints in recent years. That could be because people are more comfortable standing up for themselves or more aware of their options, but Smith also said groups on the right also have promoted the adoption of prayers.
Brett Harvey, a lawyer at the Arizona-based Alliance Defending Freedom, a Christian group that often helps towns defend their practices, sees it the other way. He said liberal groups have made a coordinated attempt to bully local governments into abandoning prayers, resulting in more cases.
Harvey has talked with hundreds of towns about their policies and has been involved in about 10 court cases in the past three years. Right now, his advice differs for different parts of the country because the law is in flux.
Courts around the country don’t agree on what’s acceptable or haven’t considered the issue. In 1983 the U.S. Supreme Court approved prayer before legislative meetings, saying prayers don’t violate the First Amendment’s so-called Establishment Clause, which prohibits the government from favoring one religion over another. But the case didn’t set any boundaries on those prayers, and today courts disagree on what is permissible.