On Wednesday, the court heard a legal challenge to the constitutionality of allowing prayers at government meetings. It’s the first time the court has considered the issue in 20 years.
The case comes from Greece, N.Y., where two women say the local governing board endorsed Christianity by starting its monthly meetings with a prayer. The court’s decision could have huge ramifications for public meetings in Alabama and Calhoun County, where prayers have long been a customary start to government hearings.
“I can’t imagine starting the meeting off without a prayer,” said Anniston Mayor Vaughn Stewart about City Council meetings. Like a lot of city councils in Calhoun County, Anniston invites different religious leaders from the community to begin each council meeting with a blessing.
“It sets the tempo for the meeting and puts us in the right frame of mind,” Stewart said. “It’s something of an Anniston City Council tradition, and I’d like to see it continue.”
It’s not just Anniston that considers the prayer a tradition. Weaver, Oxford, Jacksonville and Piedmont all start their council meetings with a prayer, as does the Calhoun County Commission.
“Seeking guidance is never a bad thing,” said Oxford Councilwoman Charlotte Hubbard. “I think it’s a really positive way to start the meeting.”
The majority faith
Many Christian leaders in the community agree. Michael Brinkman, the pastor at Weaver First United Methodist Church, said he believes a Supreme Court ruling on how local leaders choose to conduct their meetings would be “counter-productive.”
“As a Christian pastor I think prayer is necessary in every event and asking for the grace of God, especially before decision making and conversation takes place, can temper that conversation,” Brinkman said. “It invites God into the conversation.”
Brinkman, who said his views were his own personal beliefs and didn’t reflect the beliefs of the United Methodist Church, said he thinks the decision on conducting prayers at meetings should be left up to the governmental body to decide.
“In Alabama we’re kind of in the Bible Belt,” Brinkman said. “So what we practice might be different from what other parts of the country want.”
But not everyone in Calhoun County necessarily thinks prayer has a place in government. Cheyne Smith, 32 an Oxford resident who works at the Mellow Mushroom restaurant and started a Facebook group called the Calhoun County Secular Society, said the Supreme Court decision could set a huge precedent for rulings on cases of separation of church and state.
“I can see how people would feel excluded,” Smith said about prayers at meetings. “Especially if it’s coming from their elected officials who are supposed to represent them.”
Exclusion is a big part of why Smith said he started the Facebook group. Although the page has 140 likes, Smith said there is a private group for the society that’s even bigger, as many residents fear being ostracized by friends and family for their beliefs.
“We just try to lend support,” Smith said. “We have people who are afraid they’ll lose their jobs because their employer is religious.”
Balancing other views
Pressure to get rid of organized prayers at public meetings led the Calhoun County Commission to ditch wording in its agenda that noted every meeting was to begin with a prayer, said County Administrator Ken Joiner.
“This issue came up years ago and we decided rather than draw attention to it, we’d incorporate it into opening remarks,” Joiner said.
Joiner said it’s up to the commission chairman to ask for a prayer to start the meetings, and there’s nothing binding the commission from starting the meeting with or without prayer.
There’s also nothing binding the commission, or any city council, on what kind of prayer can start a meeting, which gets to the heart of the Supreme Court case.
The challengers, Linda Stephens and Susan Galloway, said because the monthly meetings in Greece, N.Y., led off since 1999 almost exclusively with Christian prayers, the town was endorsing Christianity as a religion.
“The government shouldn’t be in the prayer business,” said Heather Weaver, a senior staff attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union, which has backed Galloway and Stephens. Weaver said prayers that are denominational, as was the case in the plaintiffs’ claims in Greece, N.Y., alienate residents with different faiths and beliefs and discourage active participation in government.
“We don’t think you should be subjected to prayer as a price of admission for government meetings,” Weaver said. “We’re asking the Supreme Court that prayers be non-denominational and inclusive as possible because participating in democracy is so vital.”
Justices considered that point during Wednesday's hearing, according to the Associated Press.
“We are a very religiously diverse country,” Justice Samuel Alito said, according to the AP. “All should be treated equally. So I can’t see how you can compose a prayer that is acceptable to all these (religions).”
Justice Sonia Sotomayor said even if residents were told they didn’t have to participate in prayer sessions at public meetings, many still might feel uncomfortable and forced to recognize the prayer.
“You think any of those people wouldn’t feel coerced to stand?” Sotomayer asked, according to the AP.
Along with the American Civil Liberties Union, the Anti-Defamation League has backed Galloway and Stephens. The U.S. Department of Justice, along with the Obama administration, has sided with the town of Greece claiming it’s not the place of the Justice Department to determine whether prayers are Christian-based or more secular in nature.
Stewart said that in his one-year tenure as Anniston’s mayor, only Christian leaders have been invited to lead off the council meetings with a prayer. Joiner said he couldn’t recall non-Christian prayers at a commission meeting in his more than 40-year tenure as county administrator.
That streak might not be surprising considering how much religion in the state is dominated by Christianity. According to the Census Bureau, Alabama is among the most religious states in the country, with 63 percent of the population identifying themselves as religious. Less than 1 percent of the state identifies with a religion other than Christianity.
Attempts on Wednesday to reach officials at the Anniston Islamic Center and the Jewish Temple Beth El in Anniston were unsuccessful.
Jacksonville Mayor Johnny Smith, who has served for nine years, said the City Council there starts meetings with a prayer from a local minister. And while there are no restrictions on what faiths can lead the prayer, so far it’s all been Christians, he said.
Smith said there are no Jewish or Islamic organizations in Jacksonville to invite to pray at the meetings.
“It might be something we look at in the future,” Smith said. “Although we might not be able to do it in the future,” he said, alluding to the pending court decision.
The Supreme Court is expected to rule in the case next June.
Staff writer Brian Anderson: 256-235-3546. On Twitter @BAnderson_Star.