A recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling has the town reconsidering how it offers prayers before each council meeting.
At the July 22 council meeting, town attorney Bill Anderson brought up the May Supreme Court position on public prayer, one that grants towns more explicit leeway in allowing sectarian prayer before events like council meetings.
He did not request immediate action from the council, only that the council consider the details and his proposed resolution. The resolution would instruct the staff prepare a list of places of worship in the town’s jurisdiction and notify them that they may let the town know that they would like to offer invocations at council meetings.
“My takeaway from all of this, I’m happy this kind of decision got made because it cleared the air for a lot of municipalities,” Anderson said.
Whether prayer was permissible before council meetings was never in dispute in Town of Greece v. Galloway, the case stemming from a dispute in upstate New York. The unresolved question was whether denominational references beyond vague references to “God” or “Heavenly Father” were allowed given constitutional rulings separating church and state.
The Supreme Court held that such religion-specific prayers do not violate the Establishment Clause, as long as the local government does not discriminate against minority faiths in selecting who gets to offer the prayers and as long as the prayer does not coerce participation nor proselytize.
The town of Garner begins its meetings with prayers from local religious leaders in an overwhelmingly Christian town. The town doesn’t appear to have any significant non-Christian houses of worship in its jurisdiction; Internet and map searches turned up none and Anderson said he didn’t know of any.
Anderson said until the ruling, there was a persistent concern that someone might complain about the prayers.
“It’s been a real concern over the years,” Anderson said. “What we’ve had in the past number of years has been an uncertain area of law. We never knew whether someone was going to complain about what you were doing regarding invocation and prayers.”
In the process of informing council of the ruling and the repercussions, Anderson went through a number of historical contexts, including pointing out the origins of the First Amendment (which contains the Establishment Clause): England had a state-established religion, and the colonies had different denominations as majorities.
Council members supported the town’s use of prayer. They spoke for inclusiveness but, generally, agreed with the court’s ruling allowing religious specificity in the town’s prayers, typically Christian ones.
“I think it’s important to remember that the First Amendment was implemented to keep the government from controlling the church,” Councilwoman Kathy Behrenger said, echoing Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, who wrote a concurring opinion that went further than the ruling majority by adding that the restrictions applied only to the federal government, not state or local governments. “It wasn’t necessarily to restrict the church.”
The First Amendment explicitly bars Congress from establishing a state religion. But whether that principle should apply to state and local governments has been a matter of dispute for centuries.
North Carolina’s state constitution in 1776 disestablished the Anglican Church as its state religion. But it wasn’t until 1835 that non-Protestants could hold office, and it wasn’t until 1876 that a non-Christian could.
To this day, the state Constitution disqualifies anyone “who shall deny the being of Almighty God,” legally barring atheists from public office.
Councilman Ken Marshburn supported Anderson’s suggestion to reach out to various houses of worship. Councilman Buck Kennedy recommended the resolution be put on the agenda in August.
Jackie Johns, a deacon at Springfield Baptist Church who has been a councilman for more than 30 years, said he initiated the practice of the town’s elected leaders praying before meetings.
“I said ‘I don’t think we should be talking town business without gathering in prayer,’” Johns said. He said if the courts had ruled differently and if some had their way, “the next thing we know they’ll be telling us we can’t pray at home.”