Area towns react to Supreme Court decision on prayer

Ruling says municipalities can have prayer during meetings


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VERNON — Typically the town council starts its meetings with the Pledge of Allegiance and a salute to the flag. Then it gets down to business.

Now the five-member council will consider whether to include prayers to the agenda after the Supreme Court Monday upheld decidedly Christian prayers at the start of council meetings in municipalities across the country, declaring them in line with long national traditions though the country has grown more religiously diverse.

“I certainly agree that a moment of reflection or prayer wouldn’t hurt anyone. But we don’t want to isolate anyone,” council president Brian Lynch said cautiously.

The 5-4 ruling along ideological lines stems from a Greece, N.Y., case where two women objected to prayers at town meetings on grounds they violated the First Amendment clause that prohibits the establishment of religion. The town had included prayers for almost 10 years, offered almost exclusively by Christian clergymen, a practice the Jewish and atheist complainants objected to.

The content of the prayers is not significant as long as they do not denigrate non-Christians or try to win converts, the court said in the decision backed by its conservative majority.

Writing for the majority, Justice Anthony Kennedy said forcing clergy to scrub the prayers of references to Jesus Christ and other sectarian religious figures would turn officials into censors. Instead, Kennedy said, the prayers should be seen as ceremonial and in keeping with the nation's traditions.

"The inclusion of a brief, ceremonial prayer as part of a larger exercise in civic recognition suggests that its purpose and effect are to acknowledge religious leaders and the institutions they represent, rather than to exclude or coerce nonbelievers," Kennedy said.

Justice Elena Kagan, writing for the court's four liberal justices, said, "I respectfully dissent from the court's opinion because I think the Town of Greece's prayer practices violate that norm of religious equality — the breathtakingly generous constitutional idea that our public institutions belong no less to the Buddhist or Hindu than to the Methodist or Episcopalian."

Byram Mayor Jim Oscovitch welcomed the decision and said he would discuss plans for prayers with the council in the coming weeks.

Byram does not have prayers before town council meetings but invites clergy to recite an invocation at reorganization meetings. So far the town has had two such invocations, one delivered by a Methodist minister and the other by a member of the Byram Christian Fellowship.

“I’m a big supporter and a big fan of public prayers,” Oscovitch said. “If I know my constituents, the majority will be open to it … With the troubled time we have in this country, some prayer would be good.”

But Gary Greenwald, an Orange County attorney and political commentator, was less than thrilled with the decision. He said the Supreme Court decision was a misreading of the difference between religion and government. He supported Justice Kagan’s opinion.

“No meeting, state run, should ever support any organized religion whether Buddhist, Hindu. Christian or Jewish,” said Greenwald who interpreted the decision as supporting Christianity. “It’s an absolutely wrong decision.”

Greenwald said he didn’t oppose prayer as long as it was innocuous and did not attach to any organized religion.

“No religion should mean no religion,” he said.

Phyllis Pfeifer of Vernon, a retired educator, said she believed prayer should be allowed everywhere because it pulls people together.

“Our country was founded on the Ten Commandments,” said Pfeiffer, offering her interpretation of the origins of the constitutions. “I think there is a morality that is lost” when prayers are precluded.

“The minority have determined what the majority can do,” she added.

But she said prayers at town meetings should be from all denominations, not just Christian.

“I’m not comfortable constantly with a Christian point of view,” said Pfeifer who identified herself as from a minority religion. “There is a reverence for God. You don’t have to go into details.”

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