When Newville Borough Council Vice President Clarence Fry leads prayer at the beginning of borough council meetings, he has one simple goal in mind: to have council members focus on the community.
Fry said that prayer helps the council “do what is best for the community and put all personal agendas aside.”
The right of municipalities to open town meetings in prayer — even if those prayers are almost exclusively Christian in nature — was upheld by the United States Supreme Court by a 5-4 decision on May 5.
In the majority opinion, Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote that the “brief, ceremonial” prayers that precede town meetings in Greece, New York, do not violate the Establishment Clause of the United States Constitution’s First Amendment. Instead, they fit within a national history of accepted legislative prayer dating back to the country’s founding, he wrote. Justice Elena Kagan argued in a dissenting opinion joined by three other justices that the town should have made greater efforts to include non-Christian prayer.
Newville Borough Manager Fred Potzer said the council has opened monthly meetings with prayer since at least the beginning of his tenure as borough manager in 1994, and probably before then.
“Council members have felt this is the right thing to do,” Potzer said.
While the prayers typically ask for wisdom and guidance for the council, they have been used to remember tragedies, like the September 11 terrorist attacks or Hurricane Sandy, he said. The council has never received an objection to the prayers, he said.
Fry, who typically leads the prayers, said they give council members an opportunity to “center on the job at hand” and reflect on how they should make decisions at the meeting.
Most Cumberland County municipalities do not open their meetings with prayer, although Shippensburg Borough Council also opens its meetings with an invocation. Camp Hill and Carlisle have moments of silence before their council meetings.
Mayor Tim Scott said the Carlisle Borough Council always began meetings with a moment of silence during his 12 years on the council, and possibly for decades before that.
“To not have a moment of silence would be like not singing the national anthem at the start of a sporting event. It’s just something that we do. It’s a part of who we are,” he said. “Borough council’s use of a moment of silence gives everyone the opportunity to pray — or not pray — as dictated by their faith or conscience.”
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The Hampden Township Board of Commissioners, on the other hand, does not open meetings with either a prayer or a moment of silence.
“I don’t think it’s a necessary thing,” said Chairman Al Bienstock. “I think there’s sufficient diversity among the people in terms of different religions, that I’m very content to leave it without a prayer or a moment of silence.”
However, the township has held moments of silence on special occasions in memory of someone who has died, Bienstock said.
Dickinson College Assistant Professor David O’Connell said he was surprised the Supreme Court decided to rule on the case since legislative prayer doesn’t seem to be a hot-button political issue. Polls show that about 75 percent of Americans would support a constitutional amendment allowing public prayer, and both liberal and conservative organizations wrote briefs in support of Greece, O’Connell said.
Still, supporters and opponents of town meeting prayer worry about a slippery slope that could result from the decision, he said.
Kagan’s dissent expressed concern that Christian prayers could now be held before government functions like naturalization ceremonies that would create an even more uncomfortable situation for those of other faiths, he said. Had the prayers been ruled unconstitutional, however, supporters worried about the decision’s effect on other long-standing references to God in public settings, he said.
Those supporting prayer before legislative meetings can make a simple yet persuasive argument, according to O’Connell: such prayers cannot violate the First Amendment prohibition on laws “respecting the establishment of religion” because the people who passed that amendment supported public prayer. In fact, the legislative meeting at which the First Amendment was adopted included a chaplain prayer, he said. Those advocating for the First Amendment were actually concerned that the constitution was anti-religious, particularly given its prohibition on religious tests for public office holders, he said.
“There’s a good argument that the purpose of the First Amendment religion clause was not to protect government from religion but to protect religion from government,” he said.
However, the Supreme Court has placed caveats on public prayer. A string of court decisions have prohibited corporate prayer in public schools and public school functions — even when such prayers are student-led — on the grounds that they coerce students of other religions or no religion to participate, he said.
Kagan also argued that legislative prayer must be “non-sectarian” to accord with the nation’s tradition, he said. The court majority, however, said such a standard would be unworkable since even a prayer offered to “God” could offend those of polytheistic faiths, he said.
The 5-4 decision ends a lawsuit brought against Greece in 2008 by Jewish resident Susan Galloway and atheist resident Linda Stephens.