Last Monday, the United States Supreme Court, in a 5-4 vote, upheld the practice of Greece, New York, to open monthly town meetings with prayer. The decision leaves the way clear for the Upson County Board of Commissioners, the city councils of Thomaston and Yatesville, and the Thomaston-Upson Board of Education to continue with prayers opening their meetings.
At the Thomaston City Council meeting last Tuesday night, following the prayer by Council member Gary Atwater, Mayor Hays Arnold noted the decision of the Supreme Court.
“The Supreme Court, in a 5-4 ruling this week, ruled that it was approved that we be able to have prayer before meetings,” Arnold said. “We were doing it anyway while all of that was being contested, but it is nice to know we are under the radar now.”
The two plaintiffs who brought the suit against the small town, claimed that the prayers violated the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to the U. S. Constitution, which states, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” The Greece town board invites an unpaid, volunteer clergyman to say the prayer before their meetings. Because Greece is filled with predominantly Christian congregations, the majority of the volunteer clergymen have been Christian. The plaintiffs claimed the town’s practice of having Christian clergymen lead the prayer was establishing Christianity as the preferred religion.
The U. S. District Court ruled there was no violation because leading the prayer was not exclusive to Christian clergymen only. It also ruled that references to Jesus were acceptable as long the references weren’t used to try to convert people to Christianity or to bash other religions. On appeal, the Second Circuit Court of Appeals reversed, stating that the town’s practice appeared to endorse Christianity.
The Supreme Court reversed the Court of Appeals ruling, stating that history shows that legislative prayers are compatible with the Establishment Clause, and the Establishment Clause does not require religiously neutral prayer in this situation, as long as the opportunity to lead prayer is open to clergymen of all religions.
When asked later if there is any rule against someone of another religion saying the prayer before the city council meeting, Mayor Arnold said no.
“We don’t restrict prayer to Christian prayer. We don’t do that at all. If we have a Jewish person on the city council and they want to make a prayer that is toned in a Jewish sort of way, they could do it.”
Mayor Arnold added that if someone from the audience wanted to say the prayer, they could, but it has never happened.
“We have not done that, and it has not been anything other than it has never happened through the years,” said Arnold. “I don’t know of anytime that has been done by any person other than a council member or the mayor, so it is not something that is an exception, it has just never happened.”
Larry Stanford may be reached at 706-647-5414 or on Twitter @LarryStanford7.