Praying in public

The Lord is no longer being invoked at Salisbury City Council meetings for now, though he just received a standing invitation to the gatherings of the Frederick County Commission.

So goes the ever-fluctuating state of prayer at public meetings: Like the perennial disputes over displaying the Ten Commandments or a Nativity scene on public property, the practice of invoking the spiritual at meetings concerned with the more earthly issues of zoning or property taxes remains controversial in Maryland.

Last Monday the Salisbury council began its regular meeting with a moment of silence, replacing its customary prayer while the city attorney researches the practice's propriety.

"It doesn't belong in a governmental meeting," said Laura Mitchell, a Salisbury councilwoman who questioned the practice of reciting the Lord's Prayer before meetings. "Religion is a private matter. How someone prays, who they pray to, that's their private business."

Meanwhile, other Maryland jurisdictions have gone in the opposite direction. On Thursday, Frederick County's commissioners voted to start their meetings with an invocation, which will be made by leaders of religious congregations in the community. In Carroll County, commissioners themselves recently began taking turns offering an opening prayer.

"Frankly, whether it's a meeting or a meal, I seek God's support," said Doug Howard, president of the Carroll County Commission.

That the decisions were made by lawmakers did little to clarify the legal complexities. In Carroll, where commissioners often end their invocations with "…in Jesus' name I pray," according to the Carroll County Times, the practice has attracted the interest of the American Civil Liberties Union.

"The problem in Carroll County is you have the commissioners explicitly stating sectarian messages," said David Rocah of the Maryland ACLU chapter. "They explicitly invoke Jesus."

While Rocah calls case law on the issue of prayer at public meetings "extremely muddled," he and other lawyers say it generally is interpreted to allow invocations that do not favor one religion over another.

"We are a religiously pluralistic country, and that is one of our greatest strengths," Rocah said. "I think sectarian invocations are problematic and divisive. They exclude other beliefs. They exclude non-believers."

Especially in smaller towns, those who feel slighted by sectarian prayers may be reluctant to speak up, Rocah said. "You become a pariah in your community," he said.

The legal principle usually cited in cases involving public prayer is the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment, which bans Congress from making any laws establishing an official religion, or favoring one faith over another. In a case involving a Nebraska lawmaker who contended prayer at legislative sessions was unconstitutional, the Supreme Court ruled in 1983 that invoking "Divine guidance" was a part of the country's "unique history" and did not violate this clause.

But the ruling injected confusion into the debate as well, particularly a section that states: "The content of the prayer is not of concern to judges where, as here, there is no indication that the prayer opportunity has been exploited to proselytize or advance any one, or to disparage any other, faith or belief. That being so, it is not for us to embark on a sensitive evaluation or to parse the content of a particular prayer."

Despite the high court's guidance, parsing is precisely what often occurs. Subsequent courts have come to review the content of prayers to determine whether they exploit, proselytize, advance or disparage any one religion and thus should not be allowed, Frederick County Attorney John Mathias told the county commissioners in a 15-page memorandum.

"Generally, the idea is not to mention a particular deity, such as Jesus Christ, or any other specific deity, but to call upon God or a supreme being," Mathias said.

Mathias is currently developing guidelines for the new invocation, and recommends that Frederick County use as a template the policy of Chesterfield County, Va., which has been upheld in appellate court. Frederick County, though, may consider altering one part of the Virginia county's policy that limits those who give the invocation to leaders of "monotheistic religions."

The issue of public prayer continues to land cities and counties in court. On Thursday, the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals heard a case against Forsyth County in North Carolina, which was sued over prayers at their meetings that generally referred to Jesus or Christianity.

Mark A. Graber, a University of Maryland law professor who has written about religion and the Constitution, said these are particularly hard cases to resolve. The problem, Graber said, is that government officials end up in the position of making decisions about religions: Which ones get to offer invocations, for example, and what can they say?

"The issues are complicated. Religion is an essential part of people's lives," he said. "When one case gets decided, we just move to the next one."

Howard, of Carroll County, said he's mainly received positive feedback from constituents. "It's the individual commissioners praying," he said, adding that even though all the members happen to be Christian, at least one of them concludes by saying the prayer is "on behalf of all faiths."

In Frederick County, two of the five commissioners opposed the measure, one because he thought those offering invocations should be allowed to refer specifically to Jesus or other figures, and the other because he favored a moment of silence, said Blaine Young, president of the board.

He suggested introducing prayer to their meetings as a way of "setting the tone" for the commissioners' work. Young, who has a call-in radio show, said the issue hasn't been that controversial, although he has heard from a few people who think it violates the separation between church and state, a notion that he disputes.

"We are not dictating a county-wide religion," Young said. "We're not dictating any specific religion."

In Salisbury, council members said the tradition of saying the Lord's Prayer at the start of official meetings dates back to the 1950s. It's even in the council's official rules of order: "After calling the meeting to order, and the Lord's Prayer and the Pledge of Allegiance have been recited, the Council President shall entertain a motion to adopt the agenda for the meeting as presented."

Terry Cohen has been on the council since 2007 and was elected council president in April. She is Jewish and doesn't recite the prayer, although she didn't think much about it until council member Mitchell brought it up. She started researching the issue and now worries that perhaps reciting a prayer that is so central to Christianity may violate the First Amendment clause.

"I'm very open on this issue," she said. "Intellectually, I understand the safest route would be to have nothing at all. A moment of silence certainly can be acceptable. Folks could meditate, think inspirational thoughts, pray, do their grocery list."

But she also has been a member of business groups that begin meetings with non-sectarian, non-denominational invocations and found them meaningful and helpful.

"It really did set your mind in a good framework," she said. "You had a sense of peace and a sense of purpose. However we decide to proceed, it can be done well."

Mitchell, who was just elected this year, said she raised the issue because several residents she met during the campaign told her the prayer made them uncomfortable. She hopes the council will decide to continue the moment of silence — "it's the most respectful" — and that the members can get back to their work city business.

"We've got bigger fish to fry," she said. "So let's not overcook this one."

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