Galloway Township Council is expected to approve a plan later this month to allow its meetings to begin with a short government-approved prayer.
“It was clear to us that the majority of the citizens who were passionate about the issue wanted to see some type of prayer,” said Councilman Tony Coppola, a practicing Catholic who headed a council committee that came up with the recommendations. He said the prayers are drawn from those used by Atlantic County and other government entities, and were cleared by solicitor Michael Fitzgerald.
The proposal, Coppola said, would have different members of council read one of these pre-scripted nondenominational prayers before the start of township meetings.
The list of prayers seems to draw from the Abrahamic tradition of a single supreme deity, whom the prayers refer to as “God,” but officials said they believe that the prayers are generic enough to pass constitutional muster.
The First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution generally has been interpreted to mean that governmental bodies can neither hinder nor overtly endorse a particular religious faith. At the same time, Congress, the state Legislature and number of local towns, including Atlantic City, Millville and Pleasantville, have opened meetings with prayer in recent years.
What was key for Galloway was the 1983 U.S. Supreme Court case Marsh v. Chambers, Coppola said. In that case, the majority found prayer before meetings was acceptable, because it was a communication of shared values rather than an explicitly religious practice.
“Any claims that this country wasn't founded on strong religious ties is false,” Coppola said. “It's just false.”
The township is home to a variety of Christian churches, representing Baptists, Methodists, Catholics and nondenominational evangelicals. Galloway Township is also home to the region’s largest Hindu temple and Unitarian Universalist congregation.
Township officials have batted around the idea of prayer before their meetings for more than a year without a suitable result, including giving volunteers a pre-scripted prayer to read and a moment of silence. Some remain unsatisfied by this result.
Tom Douglass, 63, has served for 22 years as pastor of Highland Community Church, a nondenominational Christian church in the township. He said he and other evangelical leaders in the township were disappointed the government-approved prayers do not mention Jesus Christ by name, thereby undermining a central tenant in Christian theology. The church leaders did not want to be limited, he said.
“(We) feel that if we’re going to come and pray, we as Christians come and pray in the name of Jesus,” Douglass said. “We, as pastors in the community don’t mind if they … invite Hindu, Muslim, Christian, Catholic. They can invite whoever they want to.”
Douglass said he and other church leaders plan to attend meetings and use the time allotted for public comment to pray.
“We’re not mad at them,” Douglass said. “We appreciate what they’re doing, but we feel that we should support them in the way that is biblically correct.” Douglass attended the Jan. 3 meeting, praying with Mayor Don Purdy and several council members afterward.
The prayer committee included council members Whitney Ullman and Jim McElwee. Ullman could not be reached for comment, but McElwee said he volunteered to say the first prayer.
McElwee, who said he identifies as Presbyterian but does not have a church he regularly attends, said he was “very happy” with the result.
“This certainly doesn’t exclude the clergy from coming to a council meeting,” McElwee said. “They can get up during the public speaking portion, they can pray, and they can do whatever they want. We’re not asking them to act as an agent of the government, but as far as the freedom of speech, they can get up and say whatever they want.”
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