Supreme Court prayer ruling in New York case could have implications in Chattanooga area

Supreme Court prayer ruling in New York case could have implications in Chattanooga area

May 6th, 2014 by Joy Lukachick Smith in Local Regional News

Hamilton County commissioners pray during an invocation at an agenda session on June 13, 2013.

Photo by Tim Barber/Times Free Press.

POLL: Are you pleased with the Supreme Court ruling on prayer?

A U.S. Supreme Court ruling upholding primarily Christian prayers at the start of town council meetings could have implications nationwide.

Here, officials said the court's 5-4 decision Monday in favor of Greece, N.Y., reinforces the Hamilton County Commission's prayer policy that has been legally debated for nearly two years.

"We've all been waiting for this decision," said Steve Duggins, who is defending the county in a federal lawsuit over the prayers here. "We're certainly encouraged."

But Robin Flores, representing Thomas Coleman and Brandon Jones, who filed the suit in June 2012 seeking to stop prayers before commission meetings, said it's too soon to tell whether this lawsuit loses its merit in light of the highest court's decision.

"The ruling doesn't seem to give much guidance as to what challenges could be raised," Flores said. "The lawsuit is pending now; it isn't dead in the water."

Monday's ruling by the court's conservative majority found that ceremonial prayer is part of the nation's heritage and is constitutional as long as government officials try to be inclusive of all faiths.

"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," said Justice Anthony Kennedy, writing for the majority.

The decision was consistent with a 1983 Supreme Court decision that upheld opening prayer in the Nebraska Legislature, but in the earlier case the prayers were mainly secular in nature.

Justice Elena Kagan, writing for the court's four liberal justices, said Monday's ruling took the interpretation too far.

"I respectfully dissent from the Court's opinion because I think the Town of Greece's prayer practices violate that norm of religious equality -- the breathtakingly generous constitutional idea that our public institutions belong no less to the Buddhist or Hindu than to the Methodist or Episcopalian," she wrote.

Monday's ruling focused on mainly Christian prayers. Two residents in Greece, N.Y., filed a suit complaining the town was excluding non-Christians from the City Council's opening prayers. The town practice was for an employee to pick a resident or member of a clergy using a local guide of published churches. But that guide didn't include non-Christian denominations.

A trial court sided with the town in 2010, but the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals found the practice of only having Christian prayer constituted a public endorsement of Christianity. The Supreme Court decided that wasn't the case.

U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., was among politicians who lauded Monday's ruling.

The decision "upholds the First Amendment of the Constitution and the idea that our Founders never intended for religious expression to be pushed from public life," Alexander said.

Both conservative and separation-of-church-and-state groups said there could be lasting consequences in the lower courts as they interpret this decision.

The ruling reiterates the importance of the lower courts considering the historical significance of ceremonial prayer, said Sarah Torre, a policy analyst for the conservative Heritage Foundation.

"This is a significant ruling for religious freedom," she said.

Furthermore, Kennedy wrote that judges should not dictate the content of prayer:

"Government may not mandate a civic religion that stifles any but the most generic reference to the sacred any more than it may prescribe a religious orthodoxy."

Freedom From Religion co-founder Annie Gaylor said the ruling is disturbing because it's aimed at excluding people who don't agree with the religion of the majority.

It blesses "in-your-face governmental prayer that turns some people into insiders and the minority into outsiders," Gaylor said. "This is going to cause nothing but trouble."

Cities and counties across the country could take this finding as a license to conduct exclusively Christian prayers, which would be a wrong interpretation, she said.

In Hamilton County, attorneys for both sides said they will review the Supreme Court ruling before they decide what further action, if any, to take.

Before Coleman and Jones filed suit against Hamilton County in 2012, the county didn't have a prayer policy. Shortly after the suit was filed, commissioners created one that allows ordained ministers of any faith to lead the meeting's invocation on a first-come, first-served basis.

But Coleman said he still finds fault with the policy because it stipulates the minister must be part of a congregation. And Coleman, who is ordained as a minister of the Universal Life Church, said he wasn't allowed to pray before the commission.

"They say they are inclusive," Coleman said. "But why do they get to decide what counts as a religion and what doesn't count as a religion?"

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Contact staff writer Joy Lukachick at jlukachick@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6659.