The narrowly divided High Court upheld the use of prayers at the start of local government meetings Monday, and said they are in line with a long national tradition.
The court voted 5-4 backed by its conservative majority.
Justice Anthony Kennedy, the court’s swing vote, wrote the majority opinion.
Two residents of Greece, N.Y., who described themselves as a Jew and an atheist, filed suit against their city claiming from 1999 through 2007 and again from 2009 through June 2010, every city meeting was opened with a Christian prayer.
In 2008, after Susan Galloway and Linda Stephens complained, four of 12 meetings of the city were opened by non-Christians, including a Jewish layman, a Wiccan priestess and the chairman of a local Baha’i congregation.
The two filed suit, and a trial court ruled in the city’s favor, stating the city of Greece did not intentionally leave out non-Christians. It was eventually appealed to the Supreme Court.
Content of prayers isn’t significant, the court’s ruling said on Monday, as long as they do not vilify non-Christians or try to convert those in attendance.
Most local government bodies in Cobb, including the Board of Commissioners, Marietta City Council and Smyrna City Council, open public meetings with a prayer led by an area religious leader or a government official.
Cobb isn’t immune to the controversy seen nationwide regarding public prayer. A 2005 lawsuit, Pelphrey v. Cobb County, filed by the American Civil Liberties Union of behalf of seven Cobb residents, challenged public prayer opening meetings of the Cobb Board of Commissioners and Cobb Planning Commission.
The ACLU argued the county’s practice violated the establishment clause of the First Amendment and the clause only permits nonsectarian prayers before government meetings. In September 2006, U.S. District Judge Richard Story ruled against the ACLU. The ACLU then appealed, arguing the invocations are “overtly Christian prayers.”
The U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the 11th District in Atlanta ruled in favor of the county in 2008.
Some opposed to court’s decision
Then-Cobb Chairman Sam Olens said at the time he was pleased with the appellate court ruling.
“The county has consistently taken the position that invocations before meetings are appropriate,” Olens, who is now state attorney general, told the MDJ after the ruling in 2008. “Members of all faiths are permitted to give an invocation before our meetings.”
Olens said on Thursday the recent Supreme Court decision leaves the 2008 precedent largely unchanged.
“I am pleased that, like the 11th Circuit, the Supreme Court recognized that the 200-year tradition of prayer to open public meetings is consistent with the Constitution,” Olens said in a statement on Thursday.
But Ed Buckner, who was named as a plaintiff in the 2005 lawsuit against Cobb, said he’s not happy.
“They made the wrong decision. I have hopes that somebody, somehow or some subsequent court will reverse it,” said Buckner, a board member and past president of American Atheists.
The Supreme Court decision called the prayers “ceremonial,” and Buckner said that “cheapens and denigrates Christianity.”
Buckner said he recognizes the majority of Cobb residents are likely not atheists, but said most Cobb residents don’t belong to churches or identify with one denomination.
“I think it would be better if everyone said — even atheists like me — this is not the time or the place,” Buckner said, referring to prayers that open public meetings.
He doesn’t want to keep people from praying, he said, but wants to prevent other residents and government officials from “making me feel like a second-class citizen.”
If an atheist or member of a minority religion attends a government meeting requesting a zoning change or appealing property taxes and decides to step outside during the invocation to avoid being offended, Buckner said it’s impossible to gauge if decision makers will be influenced through an “unconscious or unspoken bias.”
“If you go there and they can tell you don’t agree with them on religion, then there’s a great risk that the decision will not be related to the merit but on something that should be irrelevant,” Buckner said.
Mayors: Public prayer important tradition
Smyrna Mayor Max Bacon said city meetings have opened with prayer since before he was elected 34 years ago.
Clergy members are invited, he said, to open meetings with an invocation promoting community involvement.
“For me, I know that we have a local pastor from a church come, and I think that just includes church with the government and I think it should be like that,” Bacon said.
The city makes an effort to have a cross section of religions representing its residents, Bacon said, and asked a rabbi to open a meeting two months ago.
“Our community is a melting pot, and it is different,” Bacon said, adding prayer helps set a tone for city meetings.
Marietta Mayor Steve Tumlin said his city tries to be inclusive, and “We also don’t want to force religion down their throat.”
“It’s a time just to stop and say we’re getting ready to talk about some issues and there’s more than one side to this issue and let’s have a minute for reflection,” Tumlin said.
Pastor: Faith ‘part of the national fabric’
Public prayer is a God-given right, not one ensured by the government, said Sam Matthews, senior minister at Marietta First United Methodist Church, who presided over a swearing-in ceremony for the Marietta City Council in January.
“I am not an attorney, have only a layman’s understanding of the law and am quite certain that I am not aware of all the intricacies of this case,” Matthews said. “That being said, I sincerely believe that faith and the expression of faith are part of the national fabric, and it is important that our legal system continue to acknowledge that fact.”
Individuals leading public prayer, he said, have an important obligation.
“She or he is praying for the community, and I think we must keep that thought in mind. Prayer at a public gathering should acknowledge the diversity within the community and is not the time for the expression of sectarian opinions or theologies,” Matthews said. “Sadly, too often the one who offers the prayer forgets this great responsibility.”
The Rev. Brian Sullivan of St. Benedict’s Episcopal Church in Smyrna led a prayer at a Cobb Board of Commissioners meeting in April. He agrees with the notion of separation of church and state to the extent one religion should not be favored over another, but also noted public prayer is important to remind individuals of a greater cause.
“At the beginning of the meeting, we remind ourselves that we’re more than just individuals seeking our own individual needs,” Sullivan said.