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Pastors open to prayers at meetings after court ruling

NORTHAMPTON — This week’s ruling by the Supreme Court allowing local governments to open their meetings with explicitly religious prayers is being welcomed by some local worshippers and met with an objection by the American Civil Liberties Union.

No Hampshire County towns open their legislative meetings with a prayer or blessing, and that seems unlikely to change under the Massachusetts Constitution, according to ACLU attorney Bill Newman, even considering Monday’s decision.

Newman said the “anti-aid” amendment in the state Constitution — adopted around 1833 — prohibits the state government from aiding, promoting, establishing or funding a particular religion.

That amendment would likely mean that allowing opening prayers at legislative meetings wouldn’t survive a constitutional challenge, Newman said Thursday. The 5-4 Supreme Court ruling gives the government the right to impose religious views on others who may not share them, he said, and “does a lot to dismantle the wall between church and state.”

Newman also disagreed with the Supreme Court’s contention the prayers at issue weren’t distinctly religious in nature and were only ceremonial. Newman called that “really disrespectful of religion.”

Newman said the ACLU filed a brief with the Supreme Court in Town of Greece vs. Galloway aligning itself with the dissenting minority. The high court took the case after a federal appeals court in New York ruled that the town had violated the Constitution by opening almost every meeting over an 11-year span with prayers focused on Christianity.

According to scotusblog.com, which tracks and reports on Supreme Court activity, prayers at local legislative meetings are allowed if the prayer is conducted only during a ceremonial part of the session, not mixed in with action on official policy, but the legislative body cannot dictate what can be included or excluded from the prayers.

The prayers may invoke the deities of a given faith, but cannot promote that faith as a one, true faith and cannot require or coerce people to take part in a prayer or criticize them if they choose not to, according to scotusblog.com.

It’s the matter of coercion that seemed to be the central argument for the court, said Diane Curtis, senior lecturer in the political science department at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.

Curtis said via email, “The majority found the prayers weren’t coercive because no one was forced to participate or retaliated against for failure to participate.”

“For example,” she said, “there was no evidence that the town board ever withheld benefits or voted against anyone because of their failure to participate in the prayer.

“On the other hand, the dissent argued that the lopsided nature of the choice of chaplains — almost exclusively Christian — and the explicitly Christian message of the prayers, were enough to imply that the town endorsed Christianity in particular, and therefore feel coercive to non-Christian citizens in attendance,” Curtis said.

Legal wrangling aside, two Northampton pastors said this week they would welcome the opportunity to offer a prayer at legislative meetings.

The Rev. Todd Weir, pastor at First Churches of Northampton, who has performed opening benedictions at swearing-in ceremonies for city officials in Northampton, and the Rev. Margery Hale, pastor of Cornerstone Chapel in Northampton, view the decision positively.

“If asked, I would pray,” said Hale, noting that it’s unlikely Northampton and other legislative bodies in Hampshire County will ask. “I don’t believe this county does that, but it is done across the country. Overall, I agree with the decision.”

Weir believes prayer could be a chance to promote inclusion rather than exclusion.

“It’s an opportunity to say we all do have things in common and here’s our best intentions for our common good together,” he said.

“Religion can help enforce common bonds,” Weir said.

Rather than exclude prayers from events entirely, Weir said he’d prefer to see them included with the caveat that participants would need to be instructed beforehand to be nonsectarian in their remarks.

Weir said it’s sometimes difficult to get worshippers to pray in religious settings, never mind elsewhere.

“I just want to get Christians to pray in church, that’s my job,” Weir said. “That’s a big enough challenge without trying to make legislators pray.”

Frederick King of Amherst is a Muslim who worships at the Hampshire Mosque in Amherst and said he would welcome opening prayers at city meetings. King said doing so would start the proceedings off in a “spirit of truth.”

“If we don’t have a prayer, the opposite starts,” King said. “We have a misunderstanding.”

“Wholeheartedness in prayer points us in the right direction, into happiness,” King said.

Philip Zampini, professor of political science at Westfield State University, said people of a minority faith in a community could already feel disenfranchised and that could be compounded if they feel they are not represented fairly by their legislative bodies by opening sessions with prayers promoting religious traditions other than their own.

The Supreme Court ruling does allow court challenges to prayers at legislative meetings, but only if a pattern of prayers that violate the ruling can be demonstrated.

Those disenfranchised groups, however, may likely be too small and not have the resources available to mount a legal challenge, Zampini said, even if that challenge is valid.

“What it comes down to is a disagreement about the acknowledgment of our religious heritage — to what degree religion should be free to be exercised in the public square,” Zampini said.

“There are very powerful views on that. There’s clearly a cultural division in this country between those who want a high wall of separation and those who are more willing to accommodate,” he said. “The court reflects that division.”

Staff writer Chad Cain contributed to this report.

Bob Dunn can be reached at bdunn@gazettenet.com.

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