Column: Prayers at City Council meetings?

careyThe annual “return-to-the-Square-House” gathering on Wednesday, May 7, drew as large a crowd as I can remember and I have attended each year since the early 1960s. Mayor Sack presided with dignity and finesse.

We former mayors were called on for brief remarks, starting with my predecessor, Ed Grainger. I began by saying I thought of using my few minutes to offer up a prayer for the council in coping with their problems, since prayers in public meetings had just been approved by five members of the U.S. Supreme Court.

But then I added that I had instead done my praying silently on the way to the Square House, and that I would pray some more for the council on my way home. No one commented, but the seed was sown for in-depth discussion in future meetings, formal and informal, on how the Rye City Council should react to the May 5 decision in Town of Greece, N.Y. v. Galloway.

My own view is each of us is free to pray wherever and whenever we choose, as long as we do not interfere with others. In council meetings these days, the former custom of not interrupting others happily seems to have been restored. So you would not expect members of the council or of the public to start praying aloud when someone else has the floor.

There is on each City Council regular meeting agenda an item for members of the public to be heard on matters not otherwise on the agenda. That would be an appropriate time for members of the public, and council members, to pray aloud if so moved. It would be more effective if those so doing would ad lib instead of reading from a paper of unknown authorship. Those speaking too long could be gently chided just as those on non-religious topics can be at present.

It would be wrong for anyone to be told by a government officer or employee not to pray, or how to pray, or to stop praying, since the 14th amendment to the federal constitution protects “the free exercise” of religion.

As long as all those praying publicly are self-selected, a problem faced by the Supreme Court in the Greece case is avoided. The problem is most if not all the clergy invited to pray in Greece’s meetings were Christians and chose their texts accordingly. So Judaism and Islam, for example, were not represented.

The record does not reveal whether the Christian prayers included some from storefront churches or mega-churches, or were all from ivy-clad gothic edifices.

One question that puzzles me is at what point would our City Hall become a house of worship as well as our seat of local government if more and more people assert their 14th amendment rights by taking to the podium to pray. It would be wise of the council to think through these issues before they are confronted with them while on the dais.

It is to me a great shame, and a shortcoming in our judicial system at the top, that no one text received the support of all nine of the Supreme Court justices. This is particularly unfortunate when viewed in contrast to the monumental achievement of Chief Justice Earl Warren, who brought all nine into a unanimous rejection of the “separate but equal” rule in public education in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, declaring “separate educational facilities are inherently unequal.”

The “opinion of the Court” in the Greece case was delivered by Justice Kennedy, but he was not able to deliver a full vote as to Part II-B of his decision, which denies that the Town of Greece coerces participation by non-adherents. Kennedy’s own opinion ends with this: “Ceremonial prayer is but a recognition that, since this nation was founded and until the present day, many Americans deem that their own existence must be understood by precepts far beyond the authority of government to alter or define and that willing participation in civic affairs can be consistent with a brief acknowledgment of their belief in a higher power, always with due respect for those who adhere to other beliefs. The prayer in this case has a permissible ceremonial purpose. It is not an unconstitutional establishment of religion.”

An important comment by Justice Kennedy was, “any member of the public is welcome to offer an invocation reflecting his or her own convictions.” I doubt any member of the Rye City Council wants the floor to be opened up to anyone who differs with what has been said by someone else on a religious question. But that might happen.