The Times West Virginian

July 14, 2013

Shall we pray at governmental meetings?


Times West Virginian

— The argument over whether government meetings should open in prayer goes back to Greece.

Well, Greece, N.Y.

The Greece Town Board opens its meetings with a prayer. The two women who are fighting the practice aren’t necessarily against opening the meeting with prayer. They just feel that some groups are excluded. Susan Galloway, who is Jewish, and Linda Stephens, an atheist, are being represented by Americans United for Separation of Church and State. The two women argue that in Greece, almost all of the clergy who opened the meetings were Christian. They say that between 1999 and 2011, more than two-thirds of the prayers offered before town council meetings referred to “Jesus Christ” and other Christian references.

There have been other religions represented in prayers, from Wiccan priestesses to those of the Jewish faith. But the New York appeals court said that because Christian clergymen dominated those offering prayers to open the meeting, it appeared as if the Greece Town Board was taking a side.

“A town council meeting isn’t a church service, and it shouldn’t seem like one,” the Rev. Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United, told USA Today. “Government can’t serve everyone in the community when it endorses one faith over others. That sends the clear message that some are second-class citizens based on what they believe about religion.”

There are, of course, many advocates for continuing the practice, including the Christian-based legal organization that decided to take the case to the country’s highest court.

“A few people should not be able to extinguish the traditions of our nation merely because they heard something they didn’t like,” Brett Harvey, senior counsel with Alliance Defending Freedom, told USA Today. “Because the authors of the Constitution invoked God’s blessing on public proceedings, this tradition shouldn’t suddenly be deemed unconstitutional.”

In fact, the group says that the 112th Congress, which ended its term at the beginning of the year, offered prayers at the start of session that were Christian based 97 percent of the time. That percentage is much higher than the figures those fighting Greece’s practice offer.

“The practice of legislative prayer is firmly embedded in the history and traditions of this nation,” attorney Thomas Hungar said. “We hope the court will reaffirm the settled understanding that such prayers, offered without improper motive and in accordance with the conscience of the prayer-giver, are constitutional.”

Out of the 10 municipalities in Marion County, five of them hold a prayer at the beginning of their meetings. Marion County Board of Education and Marion County Commission also hold a prayer before their meetings. Fairmont, Fairview, Rivesville, White Hall and Worthington all say a prayer at their council meetings. Farmington, Grant Town, Mannington, Monongah and Pleasant Valley councils do not say a prayer at their meetings.

So, since the tradition is also firmly embedded in Marion County’s governmental proceedings, we wanted to see how our readers felt about the legal challenge against the practice. Last week on our online poll question, we asked, “The Supreme Court will hear arguments about whether prayer should be allowed before governmental meetings. What are your thoughts?”

And here’s what you had to say:

• It will be interesting to see how the court rules — 1.75 percent.

• It’s an issue of separation of church and state, plain and simple — 10.53 percent.

• These days, elected officials need all the help they can get. Let’s pray — 11.7 percent.

• Our country and our cities and towns were founded on the principles of the Bible. Why not allow for prayer? — 76.02 percent.

We’ll see what the court has to say ... in about a year. Arguments will be heard in October and a ruling is expected in June 2014.

In the meantime, let’s talk about a possible threat to the food stamps program since House Republicans passed the farm bill that, for the first time since 1973, did not include funding for the program.

Log on. Vote. Email me or respond online.

Misty Poe

Managing Editor

mpoe@timeswv.com

@MistyPoeTWV