Supreme Court to consider prayer at government meetings

Baltimore-area localities vary widely in practice

August 10, 2013|By Jonathan Pitts and Pamela Wood, The Baltimore Sun

Whether the Carroll County commissioners meet to discuss zoning, the budget or other local issues, they start the same way — with prayer.

Commissioners take turns offering the prayer, often invoking God or Jesus. All five commissioners stand, as do any audience members who choose to, and then the lawmakers go ahead with their business.

"Prayer adds a certain sort of reverence to what we're about to do," says Douglas Howard, president of the Carroll County Board of Commissioners.

That view is not unusual in the Baltimore area. Three counties open meetings with a lawmaker's prayer, and the Baltimore City Council begins with the words of local clergy. But a lawsuit scheduled to reach the Supreme Court this fall could affect the ways such prayers are made.

The high court will review a ruling that a town near Rochester, N.Y., had violated the First Amendment ban on "establishment of religion." For years, the Greece town supervisor had invited a local minister to deliver an opening prayer at the council's monthly meeting. Members of the public attending the meeting were encouraged to join in the prayers.

Two residents, one Jewish and one an atheist, complained for several years that the prayers were offensive and inappropriate. Until they sued in 2008, only Christians had been invited to lead the prayers.

Seen through the eyes of a "reasonable observer," the town's prayer policy "must be viewed as an endorsement of … a Christian viewpoint," the U.S. 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals said in ruling against the town. The Supreme Court agreed in May to hear the town's appeal.

The case has led to an unusual agreement between the Obama administration and congressional Republicans that town councils should be allowed to open their meetings with a Christian prayer.

Lawyers for the administration and two groups of lawmakers from the House and Senate, nearly all Republicans, separately made that argument in briefs to the Supreme Court last week. The high court should relax the constitutional limits on religious invocations at government meetings, they said.

The American Civil Liberties Union disagrees and plans to file a brief supporting the plaintiffs in the New York case, said Daniel Mach, director of the group's Program on Freedom of Religion and Belief.

"The [Obama] administration brief takes a cramped view of religious liberty," Mach said. "It ignores the basic idea that government should never play favorites with faith. It suggests the town's practice in Greece was OK, notwithstanding [the] clear alignment of the local government with the majority faith. It suggests that government-sponsored sectarian prayer inflicts no harm."

Mach said he hopes the Supreme Court affirms a lower court's decision that governments can offer prayer in public meetings, as long as it doesn't align the government with any one faith.

Baltimore-area localities take a range of approaches to prayer at public meetings — including no prayer at all, a moment of silence and spoken prayers offered by lawmakers or ministers. Baltimore County, for example, opens with a moment of silence. Anne Arundel and Harford, like Carroll, usually have invocations from lawmakers.

But the prayer issue has sparked at least one lawsuit locally — and a personal protest by an Annapolis alderman.

Carroll County established its current practice in December, when the county altered its form of government — opting to elect its commissioners by district — and created a set of governing principles.

Howard said the first thing he noticed about the outgoing commissioners was that they "didn't even say the Pledge of Allegiance, so I added that right away."

Another commissioner suggested an opening prayer as another principle. "Everyone agreed, and we adopted that, too," Howard said, adding, "Prayer is a way of seeking guidance and wisdom."

The Republican said the fact that prayers have tended to include Christian language should not be considered exclusionary because no one pressures the commissioners to pray in any particular way.

"If there were a Muslim commissioner, or an atheist, they could pray however they wished, or not pray at all, or invoke a moment of silence," he said. "After all, I wouldn't want anyone to tell me how to pray. It's a matter of free choice."

Neil Ridgely of Finksburg has challenged that view. He's one of two plaintiffs who sued the county over the issue in May. The county has asked U.S. District Judge William D. Quarles Jr. to dismiss the lawsuit; he has not yet ruled.

Ridgely, who attends most of the meetings, says that for several months, every commissioner has chosen a prayer that favors Christianity above other faiths, a fact he considers a violation of First Amendment freedoms.

"Believe me, we have Jewish people, we have Muslims, we have plenty of atheists in Carroll County, and that pattern excludes them. It's offensive to me," he said.

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