The debate as to whether governmental meetings should begin with a prayer is one that can divide towns, pit neighbor against neighbor and even result in costly court battles. But following an opinion rendered by the U.S. Supreme Court in May, the latter issue is largely decided, and prayer – with the caveat that certain legal tests are met – is now permitted before such meetings nationwide.
It’s an issue that has been occasionally brought before members of the Brick Township council, including one man at a recent meeting of the governing body who requested the council consider starting such a tradition in Brick. Currently, council meetings begin with a recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance followed by a moment of silence which is often tempered by a council member asking the public to be mindful of a resident who recently died, or a national tragedy.
On some occasions, invocations have been given before township events – such as the swearing in of new council members or the annual Sept. 11 memorial service – with prayers sometimes being offered equally by a Catholic priest, Protestant minister and Jewish rabbi.
“As council president, that is not something I would consider as part of my agenda,” said Council President Susan Lydecker, indicating that since it is close to the end of the year, the issue of hosting an opening prayer would better be left in the hands of whoever serves in 2015 in that position.
The debate over prayer at meetings has been reignited by the case of Town of Greece v. Galloway, in which the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in a 5-4 decision that the small town of Greece, N.Y. could continue offering prayers at the beginning of its legislative session. The Greece case resulted in prayers being permitted at public meetings as long as the prayer comports with the tradition of the state or national legislature, does not discriminate against minority faiths and does not coerce participation by non-adherents. In what some observed as an ironic twist, the court ruled that banning non-sectarian prayer was, in and of itself, unconstitutional since such a ruling would force government officials to police the content of prayer, which would in turn more deeply involve the government in religious matters.
Dissenting opinions were varied, ranging from Justice Stephen Breyer’s contention that the town should have done more to make its legislative prayer inclusive of numerous faiths, to Justice Elena Kagan’s opinion that Greece’s prayer should not have been allowed at all since they were directed from government officials to the public in a place where government interacts with local residents.
For now, it appears that Brick will continue its tradition of holding a simple moment of silence before the start of each meeting.
“A moment of silence falls under the same category for many people,” said Township Attorney Kevin Starkey. “It’s optional, but I think the council president is right, that it’s something to consider next year.”
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