GALLOWAY TOWNSHIP — Pastor Tom Douglass stood up during the public comment portion of last week’s council meeting, raised his hands and prayed.
The action came as the governing body was still grappling about a plan to allow a prayer at the start of the meeting. But Councilman Tony Coppola said the prayer committee examining the plan met Sunday for breakfast and came to a determination and sent a new resolution to township Solicitor Michael Fitzgerald.
The latest version of the resolution calls for an open invocation that will be pre-scripted, with the names of deities not included, Coppola said. The committee decided on a list that includes a variety of invocations pulled from Atlantic County and other governing bodies that could be used at the opening of council meetings, he said.
“This is the only way that this is acceptable. Sometimes, it doesn’t matter what I want, it’s what is permissible. I don’t want to open the township up for any legal issues or frivolous lawsuits,” said Coppola, a practicing Catholic who headed up the committee.
The new resolution is expected to be included on the agenda for the next regular council meeting and is no way a mandate for members of council, he said.
“If a council member doesn’t want to pray, they don’t have to. We’re not going to force them to,” he said.
Prayers that conform to the 1983 U.S. Supreme Court case Marsh v. Chambers may be added to the list with the approval of the township solicitor, he added.
In that decision, it was determined by the majority that having prayer before meetings was acceptable and was considered a communication of shared values rather than an explicitly religious practice.
“We’re not going to make everyone happy. I don’t anticipate a pushback because of a lack of mention of deities. If I want to pray to Jesus Christ, I can go to church and pray,” Coppola said.
At last Tuesday’s meeting, Douglass told the crowd that the Township Council did not in any way invite him there to pray that evening, and he then began praying for the officials. He told the council that a group of pastors is continuing to pray for the governing body even though it has not been approved for them to come and pray at the start of the meeting.
“I pray for these men and women who give up their time. I know it’s a lot of work and huge responsibility. I thank you, God, for the good news that we’re headed towards a balanced budget. I pray they will make wise decisions in the future. I pray for their families, their businesses and that you keep them strong. I pray for the people of Galloway,” Douglass said during his prayer.
On Tuesday afternoon, one week after delivering his prayer, Douglass said he didn’t believe the council was necessarily stalling, but instead said they were trying to be careful. But frankly, he said, he doesn’t agree with them.
“Galloway doesn’t need another lawsuit, that is for sure. The problem is we have too many lawyers in the world. This country was founded by Christians and we can’t pray in Jesus’ name?” said the 63-year-old Douglass, who has served as pastor of Highland Community Church for 22 years.
The discussion regarding adding a prayer during meetings has gone on for more than a year.
Douglass expressed disappointment in the idea of a scripted and generic invocation without mention of deities to be recited at the start of council meetings.
“I have no animosity or anger towards the township council, and they do the best they can to keep from being sued. It’s a sad thing when in America you can’t pray in Jesus’ name. I think they’re going to move towards a generic-type prayer and I’m glad they’re going to do something instead of nothing,” Douglass said.
Township resident Anna Jezycki has been vocal about the issue, and Tuesday she said she was disappointed by the latest decision.
Although Jezycki said she would rather have the prayer the way it’s going to be than nothing at all, she said religious leaders in the township are not going to be happy.
“Am I a little disheartened? Yes, I am, but I am not that selfish that I am going to say it’s my way or the highway,” Jezycki said. “It’s not what I would have liked to see happen. I would have liked to see it go back to the way it was.”
Previously, the township council invited pastors to say a prayer at the beginning of meetings, and Jesus’ name was said freely during the prayers, she said.
“That part, I am going to miss. I’ll settle for half of the candy bar even though the candy bar doesn’t taste that good,” she said.
Galloway Township is home to several Christian churches, with parishioners who are Methodists, Baptists, Catholics and nondenominational evangelicals. It also houses the region’s largest Hindu temple and a Unitarian Universalist congregation.
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