Prayer Push: Clergy Demand Sectarian Invocations Before Government Meetings Despite Legal Risks

Cases like Greece v. Galloway, which Americans United will argue before the U.S. Supreme Court this fall, are giving local officials serious pause when they consider allowing official sectarian prayers before public meetings.

Pastor Tom Douglass of Galloway Township, N.J., is no fan of generic prayers before public meetings. That’s why he’s asking city officials to “muscle up” for future invocations.

Back in February, the council unanimously approved a resolution to allow council members to open meetings with an approved, generic prayer. But some local clergy protested this less sectarian approach, and asked that the council return to its old policy of letting clergy deliver prayers to open meetings, according to the Press of Atlantic City.

But town officials were warned by attorneys not to return to their old ways because of constitutional concerns.

“The reason they (officials) are doing the prayer is because they don't want to be sued,” Douglass told the Press of Atlantic City. “I understand that, I appreciate that.”

But for Douglass, the real problem is that the council-approved prayer just isn’t Christian enough for his tastes.

“On the other hand, let's muscle up here,” he asserted. “Communities have been taken to court over this issue and they have won and are continuing to pray.”

Douglass might even be willing to drag the town into a legal fight, but we’re happy to report that recent cases like Greece v. Galloway, which Americans United will argue before the U.S. Supreme Court this fall, are giving local officials serious pause when they consider allowing official sectarian prayers before public meetings.

Still, the law’s not enough to satisfy some fringes of the Religious Right. In Galloway Township, officials decided against inviting religious leaders to deliver prayer, only to face opposition.

Phil Erickson, another local minister, 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.”

Representative of whom? That’s the question the Religious Right never seems quite able to answer. These prayers only represent a fraction of the community and that’s exactly why a public city council meeting isn’t the place for them.

But Galloway Township isn’t the only city facing a controversy over prayer. The mayor of Glendale, Ariz., has moved to “solemnize” council meetings with prayer. His decision thrust the town into a heated national debate and, out of concerns over legal action, officials have developed a set of detailed guidelines in order to avoid a lawsuit.

The situation in Glendale is complicated by previous debates over prayer in the Arizona legislature. Earlier this year, a secular invocation delivered by State Rep. Juan Mendez, an atheist, infuriated some of his more religious colleagues, who later asked God for forgiveness.

Our state legislatures and city councils have more pressing business to address. These debates over prayer at public meetings occupy time that our elected officials could use to discuss issues that affect all citizens, rather than simply trying to please a select few with prayers.

The conviction that sectarian prayer actually represents everyone, that it should be protected as part of an American tradition, is a fantasy invented by the Religious Right. And fortunately, many realize this. Even in Arizona, where public prayer remains such a divisive issue, Litchfield Park Councilman Peter Mahoney began walking out of Christian invocations.

“I’m a Christian and a true believer in the separation of church and state,” he told the local press.

Peter Mahoney understands that faith isn’t a thing you can force, and so does the U.S. Constitution. It’s time for the Religious Right to step aside and let our elected officials take care of public business.