Praying in public

Maryland jurisdictions wrestle with adding spiritual note to their earthly business

May 14, 2011|By Jean Marbella, The Baltimore Sun

The Lord is no longer being invoked at Salisbury City Council meetings for now, though he just received a standing invitation to the gatherings of the Frederick County Commission.

So goes the ever-fluctuating state of prayer at public meetings: Like the perennial disputes over displaying the Ten Commandments or a Nativity scene on public property, the practice of invoking the spiritual at meetings concerned with the more earthly issues of zoning or property taxes remains controversial in Maryland.

Last Monday the Salisbury council began its regular meeting with a moment of silence, replacing its customary prayer while the city attorney researches the practice's propriety.

"It doesn't belong in a governmental meeting," said Laura Mitchell, a Salisbury councilwoman who questioned the practice of reciting the Lord's Prayer before meetings. "Religion is a private matter. How someone prays, who they pray to, that's their private business."

Meanwhile, other Maryland jurisdictions have gone in the opposite direction. On Thursday, Frederick County's commissioners voted to start their meetings with an invocation, which will be made by leaders of religious congregations in the community. In Carroll County, commissioners themselves recently began taking turns offering an opening prayer.

"Frankly, whether it's a meeting or a meal, I seek God's support," said Doug Howard, president of the Carroll County Commission.

That the decisions were made by lawmakers did little to clarify the legal complexities. In Carroll, where commissioners often end their invocations with "…in Jesus' name I pray," according to the Carroll County Times, the practice has attracted the interest of the American Civil Liberties Union.

"The problem in Carroll County is you have the commissioners explicitly stating sectarian messages," said David Rocah of the Maryland ACLU chapter. "They explicitly invoke Jesus."

While Rocah calls case law on the issue of prayer at public meetings "extremely muddled," he and other lawyers say it generally is interpreted to allow invocations that do not favor one religion over another.

"We are a religiously pluralistic country, and that is one of our greatest strengths," Rocah said. "I think sectarian invocations are problematic and divisive. They exclude other beliefs. They exclude non-believers."

Especially in smaller towns, those who feel slighted by sectarian prayers may be reluctant to speak up, Rocah said. "You become a pariah in your community," he said.

The legal principle usually cited in cases involving public prayer is the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment, which bans Congress from making any laws establishing an official religion, or favoring one faith over another. In a case involving a Nebraska lawmaker who contended prayer at legislative sessions was unconstitutional, the Supreme Court ruled in 1983 that invoking "Divine guidance" was a part of the country's "unique history" and did not violate this clause.

But the ruling injected confusion into the debate as well, particularly a section that states: "The content of the prayer is not of concern to judges where, as here, there is no indication that the prayer opportunity has been exploited to proselytize or advance any one, or to disparage any other, faith or belief. That being so, it is not for us to embark on a sensitive evaluation or to parse the content of a particular prayer."

Despite the high court's guidance, parsing is precisely what often occurs. Subsequent courts have come to review the content of prayers to determine whether they exploit, proselytize, advance or disparage any one religion and thus should not be allowed, Frederick County Attorney John Mathias told the county commissioners in a 15-page memorandum.

"Generally, the idea is not to mention a particular deity, such as Jesus Christ, or any other specific deity, but to call upon God or a supreme being," Mathias said.

Mathias is currently developing guidelines for the new invocation, and recommends that Frederick County use as a template the policy of Chesterfield County, Va., which has been upheld in appellate court. Frederick County, though, may consider altering one part of the Virginia county's policy that limits those who give the invocation to leaders of "monotheistic religions."

The issue of public prayer continues to land cities and counties in court. On Thursday, the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals heard a case against Forsyth County in North Carolina, which was sued over prayers at their meetings that generally referred to Jesus or Christianity.

Mark A. Graber, a University of Maryland law professor who has written about religion and the Constitution, said these are particularly hard cases to resolve. The problem, Graber said, is that government officials end up in the position of making decisions about religions: Which ones get to offer invocations, for example, and what can they say?

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