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Torres: How to handle prayer before government meetings

June 18, 2014
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By Lori Torres

torres-lori.jpg Torres

The Supreme Court of the United States recently issued another opinion on the constitutionality of prayer before a government meeting. The court found the prayer practice constitutional on a 5-4 vote, but also made some clear statements that the permissibility is based on the particular facts and the setting. In Town of Greece, New York v. Galloway, et al., 12-696, 572 U.S. _______ (2014), the court found that the brief prayer offered by rotating ministers of churches in the town conformed with the requirements of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.

The framers of our Constitution considered legislative prayer a way to add gravity to public business and to remind lawmakers of their duty to transcend petty differences in pursuit of a higher purpose. Even the first Congress appointed and paid official chaplains, and the practice has been carried on ever since.

And yet, there have been prayer practices that have been struck down. So how do governments work to ensure that their practices are such that they are wholly within the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause? Following is a list of factors considered by the majority opinion, as well as the primary dissent.

1. Be inclusive. Invite officiants of different faiths. Have a methodology, such as everyone listed in the phone book is invited on a rotating basis, or every church in the city, town, etc., is welcome on different meeting nights. If you have no Muslim or Jewish congregations, for example, in or near your municipality, it isn’t necessary to go outside your city or town. But if houses of worship are located within driving distance, you should consider inviting nearby officiants, as you can assume that some of those members probably live in your city or county. Make reasonable efforts to identify all faiths in reasonable proximity, and welcome anyone who wishes to give such a prayer. Such policy might be placed on the website or on a bulletin board.

2. Don’t approve the content of the prayers. Each religion is entitled to invoke the deity or power in which they believe. Prayers need not be nonsectarian (generic, without affiliation to a particular religion). Neutrality of content is not required. However, prayer givers should be counseled that the prayer opportunity is not to be exploited to proselytize, advance or disparage any other person, faith or belief. Prayer that is solemn, respectful in tone and causing lawmakers to reflect upon shared ideals and common ends serves a legitimate function. Prayers that denigrate non-believers or religious minorities, threaten damnation or preach conversion fall short of that purpose. A pattern of such prayer will be fatal to its continued practice. While the government entity can’t be sure of what any minister may say, an isolated incident of prayer outside the bounds won’t necessarily doom the practice. Our pluralistic society is acknowledged not by proscribing content, but by welcoming ministers of many creeds.

3. Prayer is best done during the “opening ceremonies” of a legislative meeting. Often, the Pledge of Allegiance and opening prayer are the first items after a meeting is gaveled to order. It fits in well with ceremonial matters, special recognitions, etc., but not during adjudicatory parts or policy-making portions of the meeting. For example, prayer before a zoning petition is presented for approval is probably not wise. Don’t include the prayer before adjudicatory bodies (for example, court sessions, though the Supreme Court has long opened its sessions with “God save the United States and this honorable Court”).

4. Consider the prayer to be directed to the legislative body members, not the public. Even the direction the minister faces might impact to whom the prayer is directed. While the minister in Town of Greece faced the public, it was a point of contention for the dissent. Avoid the issue, and consider the prayer exercise an internal act with the principal audience being the lawmakers, not the public attendees.

5. Do not require participation. Neither the municipal board nor the prayer giver should direct or require the public to participate, single out dissidents or indicate that decisions might be influenced by a person’s participation or acquiescence in the prayer. People should be and feel free to enter after the prayer, leave during the prayer, sit rather than stand (if invited to stand), or otherwise feel free to ignore the invitation to prayer. Even though a member of the public may be offended or feel excluded by such prayer, disagreeable speech is not actionable as an Establishment Clause violation. Prayers should not, however, chastise dissenters nor attempt lengthy dogmatic conversion. It is a basic principle that government cannot coerce its citizens to support or participate in any religion or its exercise. Where the pattern of prayer does so, it will not be permitted.

These simple steps can preserve a government’s prayer practice within the bounds of the Establishment Clause. They can’t ensure a lack of complaints, the absence of litigation or other objections, but they address the writing justices’ concerns. “From the earliest days of the Nation, these invocations have been addressed to assemblies comprising many different creeds. These ceremonial prayers strive for the idea that people of many faiths may be united in a community of tolerance and devotion. Even those who disagree as to religious doctrine may find common ground in the desire to show respect for the divine in all aspects of their lives and being. Our tradition assumes that adult citizens, firm in their own beliefs, can tolerate and perhaps appreciate a ceremonial prayer delivered by a person of a different faith.” Town of Greece, (KENNEDY J.), 572 U.S. ______, (2014) (slip op., at 16).•

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Lori Torres is an attorney in Ice Miller’s Public Affairs Group. She concentrates her practice in the areas of public affairs, public policy planning, economic development, and labor and employment, with a focus on state wage and hour issues and real estate. She can be contacted at 317-236-2291 or at lori.torres@icemiller.com. The opinions expressed are those of the author.
 

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  1. Indianapolis employers harassment among minorities AFRICAN Americans needs to be discussed the metro Indianapolis area is horrible when it comes to harassing African American employees especially in the local healthcare facilities. Racially profiling in the workplace is an major issue. Please make it better because I'm many civil rights leaders would come here and justify that Indiana is a state the WORKS only applies to Caucasian Americans especially in Hamilton county. Indiana targets African Americans in the workplace so when governor pence is trying to convince people to vote for him this would be awesome publicity for the Presidency Elections.

  2. Wishing Mary Willis only God's best, and superhuman strength, as she attempts to right a ship that too often strays far off course. May she never suffer this personal affect, as some do who attempt to change a broken system: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QojajMsd2nE

  3. Indiana's seatbelt law is not punishable as a crime. It is an infraction. Apparently some of our Circuit judges have deemed settled law inapplicable if it fails to fit their litmus test of political correctness. Extrapolating to redefine terms of behavior in a violation of immigration law to the entire body of criminal law leaves a smorgasbord of opportunity for judicial mischief.

  4. I wonder if $10 diversions for failure to wear seat belts are considered moral turpitude in federal immigration law like they are under Indiana law? Anyone know?

  5. What a fine article, thank you! I can testify firsthand and by detailed legal reports (at end of this note) as to the dire consequences of rejecting this truth from the fine article above: "The inclusion and expansion of this right [to jury] in Indiana’s Constitution is a clear reflection of our state’s intention to emphasize the importance of every Hoosier’s right to make their case in front of a jury of their peers." Over $20? Every Hoosier? Well then how about when your very vocation is on the line? How about instead of a jury of peers, one faces a bevy of political appointees, mini-czars, who care less about due process of the law than the real czars did? Instead of trial by jury, trial by ideological ordeal run by Orwellian agents? Well that is built into more than a few administrative law committees of the Ind S.Ct., and it is now being weaponized, as is revealed in articles posted at this ezine, to root out post moderns heresies like refusal to stand and pledge allegiance to all things politically correct. My career was burned at the stake for not so saluting, but I think I was just one of the early logs. Due, at least in part, to the removal of the jury from bar admission and bar discipline cases, many more fires will soon be lit. Perhaps one awaits you, dear heretic? Oh, at that Ind. article 12 plank about a remedy at law for every damage done ... ah, well, the founders evidently meant only for those damages done not by the government itself, rabid statists that they were. (Yes, that was sarcasm.) My written reports available here: Denied petition for cert (this time around): http://tinyurl.com/zdmawmw Denied petition for cert (from the 2009 denial and five year banishment): http://tinyurl.com/zcypybh Related, not written by me: Amicus brief: http://tinyurl.com/hvh7qgp

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