The Obama administration is backing Christian prayers before government meetings, an issue that’s been in the spotlight in the Charlotte region, where some local governments have opened meetings with a Christian prayer for years.
The administration, congressional lawmakers and the state attorneys general from 23 states filed briefs with the U.S. Supreme Court this week, arguing legislative meetings should be allowed to open with Christian prayer.
“That’s good news,” said Iredell County commissioners’ Chairman Steve Johnson. “We’ll take help wherever we can get it. They’re doing the Lord’s work. I just hope the Supreme Court is listening.”
Iredell County’s all-Republican board began meetings with a Christian prayer until the American Civil Liberties Union complained last year. After getting legal advice, Johnson said, he stopped invoking Jesus and has ended prayers with “in your name.” Pursuing a lawsuit would cost taxpayers, he said.
The Obama administration’s backing of Christian prayers before meetings “would influence me” in reinstating prayers invoking Jesus, he said, “but I can’t speak for the whole board.”
“Number one, I’m surprised,” Iredell County commissioner David Boone said of the administration’s stance. “And number two, that’s one of the few times he’s taken the right side of an issue ... It’s a matter of free speech.”
The practice of elected officials saying a Christian prayer before a government meeting – and the ensuing lawsuits – has caused contention across the country and around the region, as many Charlotte-area government meetings lead off with an invocation.
Last year, a federal appeals court ruled that the town of Greece, N.Y., near Rochester, had crossed the line and violated the First Amendment’s ban on an “establishment of religion.” For years, the town supervisor had invited a local minister to deliver an opening prayer at the council’s monthly meeting. Members of the audience were encouraged to join in the prayers.
Two residents, one Jewish and one an atheist, had complained for several years that the prayers were offensive and inappropriate. Until they sued in 2008, only Christians had been invited to lead the prayers.
Looked at through the eyes of a “reasonable observer,” the town’s prayer policy “must be viewed as an endorsement of … a Christian viewpoint,” the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said in ruling against the town.
The justices agreed in May to hear the town’s appeal this fall.
The case has drawn attention because it could provide the court’s conservative majority an opportunity to alter a legal rule that dates to the 1980s and a set of opinions by then-Justice Sandra Day O’Connor. Her decisions said government actions would violate the First Amendment if they appeared to “endorse” religion. That rule has been followed in cases saying that government agencies cannot display the Ten Commandments in their buildings or host Nativity scenes at Christmas.
But O’Connor’s “endorsement” standard, which remains the law, can be difficult to interpret. Part of the difficulty is that what one person perceives as endorsement of religion might seem completely benign to someone else. The standard has often led to disputed rulings and widely differing decisions among lower courts.
In the current case, the Obama administration has told the court that Greece’s practice should not be considered an endorsement. The town council’s opening of its meetings with a Christian prayer “does not amount to an unconstitutional establishment of religion merely because most prayer-givers are Christian and many or most of their prayers contain sectarian references,” wrote U.S. Solicitor Gen. Donald Verrilli Jr.
He noted that the House and Senate had official chaplains and that the court in 1983 upheld opening prayers in state legislatures. If local councils may have religious invocations, the law should not require them to “closely police the content of prayers,” he said.
Eighty-five House members and 34 senators joined two friend-of-the-court briefs that also urged the court to make clear that prayers and religious invocations are constitutional. They had not expected the administration would weigh in as well.
The administration’s filing was “a surprisingly conservative brief, and it came as a pleasant surprise,” said Ken Klukowski, a lawyer for the Family Research Council, who filed the brief for the House members. “It’s gratifying that even the Obama administration recognizes that courts are not qualified to censor prayers.”
Administration lawyers may hope that by siding with the town, they can head off a more sweeping ruling. The court’s conservatives have long wanted to scrap the endorsement standard. They would prefer a rule that schools and local governments may invoke religion and Christianity so long as no unwilling person is forced to join in. Lawyers refer to this as the “coercion” standard, and Klukowski’s brief urges the court to adopt it in the New York case.
Local lawsuits over prayer
In the Charlotte area, Rowan and Forsyth counties have been involved with lawsuits concerning religion-specific prayers offered before meetings. While many surrounding counties pray before meetings, they’re often nondenominational or the name Jesus isn’t used. In Mooresville, Town Attorney Steve Gambill says a Christian prayer before each Mooresville Board of Commissioners meeting. He couldn’t be reached Friday.
At the end of July, a federal judge filed an injunction to stop the Rowan County Board of Commissioners from opening with Christian prayer as part of an ongoing ACLU lawsuit.
On Monday afternoon at their first meeting since the injunction, Rowan commissioners said they would comply with the ruling while the U.S. Supreme Court hears the related case.
Rowan County commissioner Craig Pierce said Friday the board is complying with the ruling just as other residents are expected to comply with laws, regardless of whether they agree with them.
“I feel this issue is not so much about prayer but an infringement on my First Amendment rights,” Pierce told the Observer. “When I walk into the (meeting), I don’t leave my First Amendment rights at the door.” The McClatchy Tribune Washington bureau contributed..
Marusak: 704-987-3670; Twitter: @ jmarusak
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