We did it for four years while I was a member of the planning and zoning board of the city of Pooler. We did it for 11 years while I was serving as either Pooler mayor pro tem or mayor. And we’ve done it for the past nine years while I’ve served in the state Legislature.
We start every meeting with a prayer.
In fact, not only have we started all of our council and legislative meetings with prayer, we start all committee meetings with prayer as well.
Now all that may change depending on what determination the U.S. Supreme Court makes in the case of Town of Greece v. Galloway.
Last week, the Supreme Court heard arguments on whether the town of Greece in upstate New York had crossed a constitutional line by opening their town board meetings with prayer.
According to pewforum.org, the case marks the first time in 30 years that the Supreme Court, which asks God for help before every public session, has taken up a dispute over prayer in the halls of government.
In the 1983 case of Marsh v. Chambers, the justices said that an opening prayer is part of the nation’s fabric and not a violation of the First Amendment and upheld the Nebraska Legislature’s practice of opening its sessions with an invocation from a paid Presbyterian minister.
In that case, the court based its decision on a historical framework, saying at the time, “The opening of sessions of legislative and other deliberative public bodies with prayer is deeply embedded in the history and tradition of this country.”
However, a different court exists today and, as many observers point out, Marsh v. Chambers dealt more with state legislatures, where citizens typically do not participate, rather than city-council meetings, where they routinely appear to present their case.
The difference, the plaintiffs argue, is that the prayer before city-council meetings puts a coercive pressure on citizens to participate, fearing that they might offend a council person who is about to decide the fate of their issue.
This, opponents say, is a direct violation of the First Amendment, or specifically of the Establishment Clause, which was intended to prohibit the federal government from declaring and financially supporting a national religion.
Opponents further point out that in the case of Greece, N.Y., since 1999, every meeting has opened with a Christian-oriented invocation.
In 2008, after two residents filed suit, members of non-Christian faiths — including a Jewish layman, a Wiccan priestess and the chairman of the local Baha’i congregation — were invited to give the invocation.
In order to assure diversity in the invocations, a town employee used a locally published guide of churches to invite members of other churches to give the invocation. However, it was found that the church guide did not include any non-Christian denominations.
A closer look into the town of almost 100,000 revealed that almost all of the people are Christians. In fact, when asked, the two citizens who originally brought the complaint testified that they knew of no non-Christian churches in the town.
A trial court found in favor of the town, finding that it did not intentionally exclude non-Christians and that the content of the prayers was not an issue, since it did not demean other faiths.
However, a three-judge court of appeals later ruled that the practice of having one Christian prayer after another amounted to the town’s endorsement of Christianity.
The high court is expected to rule on it by next June.
While the prayer portion of this case obviously is a serious issue, it could extend well beyond this and affect holiday displays, aid to religious schools, Ten Commandment markers and memorial crosses.
I, for one, believe that taking prayer out of our public schools is one of our nation’s biggest mistakes. And while I do believe that we should be respectful of all beliefs, taking prayer out of our local government meetings is not the answer.
Let’s all pray the Supreme Court doesn’t do this.
Carter can be reached at Coverdell Legislative Office Building (C.L.O.B.) Room 301-A, Atlanta, GA 30334. His Capitol office number is 404-656-5109.