A narrowly divided U.S. Supreme Court upheld decidedly Christian prayers at the start of local council meetings Monday, declaring them in line with long national traditions though the country has grown more religiously diverse.
The court said in a 5-4 decision that the content of the prayers is not significant as long as officials make a good-faith effort at including faiths other than Christianity.
Some local municipalities include brief prayers before council meetings, most notably Galloway Township, which last year modified its policy over what Deputy Mayor Tony Coppola called “legal concerns.”
The township began its practice of offering prayer before council meetings in 2006, inviting local leaders of various faiths to give invocations before meetings. This proved controversial after it drew an overwhelmingly Christian response, and in February 2013, the council voted to restrict invocations to a few approved nondenominational messages read by council members, rather than clergy.
Coppola said that policy has been as successful as it could be, considering the controversy, and he sees no reason to change it following the new ruling.
“I think people are comfortable with the way we’re doing things right now,” he said. “I think it’s one of those things where you can’t make everybody happy.”
Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy, writing for the majority, said the prayers are ceremonial and in keeping with the nation’s traditions.
”The inclusion of a brief, ceremonial prayer as part of a larger exercise in civic recognition suggests that its purpose and effect are to acknowledge religious leaders and the institutions they represent, rather than to exclude or coerce nonbelievers,” Kennedy said.
The ruling was a victory for the town of Greece, N.Y., outside of Rochester. Two residents there filed a complaint in 2008, and the case moved through the judicial system until it reached the Supreme Court last year.
Justices John Roberts, Samuel Alito, Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas voted in accordance with Kennedy. Justices Elena Kagan, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen G. Breyer and Sonia Sotomayor dissented.
Ocean City, like Galloway Township, offers a nondenominational prayer spoken by committee members. At-Large Councilman Keith Hartzell said this practice leaves the prayer up to the interpretation of the individual, which has been successful in limiting controversy.
“We’re asking for guidance and direction from God, and it doesn’t need to get into what specific interpretation there is,” said Hartzell, who said he is Christian. “It’s to God himself, and ... it doesn’t need to be specific to a particular interpretation of God.”
Hartzell, likewise, said he does not expect the Supreme Court’s decision to lead to a policy change.
Sam Lavner, a longtime Democratic leader in Ocean City who has been asked many times to either speak at council meetings or write letters objecting to the practice of prayer before business is conducted, said sectarian prayers like those now allowed by this decision have no place in local government.
“A moment of silence, 30 seconds or so devoted to your own thoughts, might be appropriate. But to say a prayer where the words are explicitly spoken and to mention Jesus, that’s the wrong thing to do,” he said.
Pastor Tom Douglass, of Highland Community Church in Galloway, has been one of the outspoken opponents of Galloway’s move to nondenominational invocations. In August, he said the decision was not necessary and that other communities have withstood such legal challenges.
With this decision, Douglass said he hopes Galloway will allow clergy to give the invocation.
“Now, the door is opening to what I believe should be done,” he said. “It’s freedom of religion, not freedom from religion.”
Staff Writer Cindy Nevitt and the Associated Press contributed to this report.
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