GALLOWAY TOWNSHIP - Several local Christian leaders said the past six months have proved that the Township Council is afraid of a lawsuit almost as much as they are afraid of prayer.
In February, the council unanimously passed a resolution to incorporate a government-approved prayer said by a council member at the beginning of regular meetings. Local pastors said this is a generic stance on the idea of prayer designed to make everyone happy and avoid litigation.
They prefer the township's previous practice of allowing local clergy to say the prayer at meetings.
But after concerns were raised about having clergy praying to a specific deity at public meetings, officials received legal advice that practice could be a violation.
"The reason they (officials) are doing the prayer is because they don't want to be sued. I understand that, I appreciate that. On the other hand, let's muscle up here. Communities have been taken to court over this issue and they have won and are continuing to pray," said Pastor Tom Douglass of Highland Community Church.
Christian leaders are now pointing to a Supreme Court case in which the town of Greece, N.Y., was sued by two residents -one Jewish and the other an atheist - who argued that the town council's opening prayer at meetings was a violation of the First Amendment's ban on laws respecting the establishment of religion.
But earlier this month, an amicus brief was filed by lawyers for the Justice Department, which sided with Greece that the prayers held at the start of council meetings pose no violation of the U.S. Constitution.
Since the Galloway council approved the local measure almost six months ago, there have been seven invocations given at the start of seven meetings.
Deputy Mayor Tony Coppola said the recent Supreme Court development could not be considered six months ago and it is possible the issue now could be revisited.
Coppola, a Catholic, has delivered four prayers since the resolution was passed in February.
To read "diluted prayers" at council meetings is nice, but it's a shame religious leaders no longer come in to pray, Coppola said.
"In God we Trust is on our money; the Pledge of Allegiance has God in it. I think it's ridiculous and unfortunate that it came to not having religious leaders come to meetings and pray. But we needed to make sure we insulate ourselves from lawsuits to protect the township and taxpayers," Coppola said.
Douglass and other Christian leaders said the township needs to bring them back to give prayers at the meetings.
The township should never fear praying, Douglass said. Separation of church and state is keeping the state out of the church not the church out the state, Douglass said.
Pastor Phil Erickson, of Jersey Shore Baptist Church, said he is not opposed to anyone praying, including the council members, but local religious leaders don't think there was an issue with the way prayer was previously delivered at meetings.
"We're not trying to be divisive about this, and we understand the fear of being sued and know it would be very expensive to fight it," Erickson said.
Erickson and Douglass said all religions in the community were invited to come to the township meetings and deliver a prayer when the township permitted religious leaders to do so. But the only faith that participated was Christianity, Erickson said.
"I'm not fighting against our town. I can understand their dilemma. The prayers they're delivering are not bad, but we are arguing having religious leaders deliver prayer is more representative of the community," Erickson said.
Contact Donna Weaver:
Follow Donna Weaver on Twitter @DonnaKWeaver