‘I Don’t Feel Threatened’

November 14, 2013
BY Suzanne Pollak
Supreme Court to rule on prayer at government meetings in Gaithersburg
According to a 1983  Supreme Court decision, opening a government meeting with prayer is acceptable as long as there is no attempt to proselytize (Architect of the Capitol)

According to a 1983 Supreme Court decision, opening a government meeting with prayer is acceptable as long as there is no attempt to proselytize (Architect of the Capitol)

The Montgomery County Council begins each of its Tuesday meetings with a prayer.

Clergy from a wide array of faith traditions are invited to lead the prayer, noted council member-at-large George Leventhal.

“I have not felt uncomfortable during our opening prayer,” Leventhal said. “I am quite comfortable with my own religious identity, and I don’t feel threatened.”

Leventhal, a Jew, said despite attending numerous meetings and events, “I never once have been asked to do anything that violates my faith.”

But for others, the issue is real and makes them feel unwelcome in civic meetings. That is why Susan Galloway, a Jew, and Linda Stephens, both residents of Greece, N.Y., have taken their concern — that they are subjected to sectarian prayer during governmental meetings — all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Last week, Supreme Court justices listened to arguments on whether the town violated the Constitution by beginning its meetings with mostly Christian prayers. The court is expected to rule by the end of June 2014.

This is the first time the Supreme Court will rule on prayer at government meetings since a 1983 ruling allowed the Nebraska legislature to open its meetings with a prayer by a paid Presbyterian minister as long as there was no attempt to proselytize. Also, the process of getting a prayer leader could not be discriminatory, the court ruled.

The First Amendment is not violated as long as there is no attempt to establish a religion, according to the Supreme Court ruling.

That makes perfect sense to Sidney Katz, mayor of Gaithersburg. At his city meetings, “we have a moment that we could have prayer. It has really ended up as a moment of silence.”

Katz is not concerned by the occasional prayer he hears at meetings.

“The vast majority of the time people are respectful,” he said.

Katz noted that “every now and then someone will name a deity the way they normally speak to God. It’s just the way they normally end the prayer.”

At the Montgomery County Board of Education, “it is not an issue for us,” declared Phil Kauffman, vice president. The board “does not begin its meetings with a prayer and to my knowledge has never done so,” he wrote in an email.

Hadar Susskind, director of Bend the Arc Jewish Action, said it is “very, very rare” for him to hear a prayer offered at the numerous political events he attends unless that meeting is faith-based.

Susskind said prayer at meetings is more of an issue outside of D.C. and that Bend the Arc has no official position on the matter.

D.C. Attorney General Irvin Nathan said that the particular case before the Supreme Court is an important one.

“These are public fathers. There is a clear pattern here of choosing only Christian clergy,” Nathan said.

D.C. public meetings do not begin with prayers, and “we get along quite well without it.” Chaplains in the U.S. Congress do offer prayers but are sensitive to their audience, he said.

That is an important point to Debbie Linick, director for D.C. and Northern Virginia at the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Washington. She pointed to Rabbi Devorah Lynn, who previously was at Beth Sholom Temple in Fredericksburg.

“When she offers a prayer [before a mixed audience], she is really not thinking about who is she praying to, but for whom she is praying,” said Linick.

In Virginia, there is a policy of opening the legislature with a prayer, and in many of its towns, particularly those farthest from the beltway, those prayers are often specifically Christian. Earlier this year, state Sen. Bill Stanley, a Republican, withdrew a proposed state constitutional amendment that would have restricted the government from regulating prayer in public schools and government meetings, Linick said.

The JCRC was “able to educate the senators,” she said, adding that her organization works “to be an honest broker to what the court guidelines permit and don’t permit us. We tell them where the line is drawn.”

In another case, a former Virginia delegate who had been a state trooper, spent time speaking with young people about the dangers of using drugs. “He would often invoke ‘What would Jesus do?’ and that was inappropriate when talking to students,” said Linick, adding the former delegate no longer does that.

“In this past year, we actually had six different issues we successfully advocated” concerning the separation of church and state, she said. “We are being successful educating legislators.”

Attorney Nathan Lewin, a practicing Orthodox Jew who is working on a case that would allow Israel to be listed as a country of birth on American passports, filed a brief to the Supreme Court in support of the town of Greece.

In that brief, he noted that “sectarian Christian prayer in public by a clergyman or other religious official as part of a governmental ceremony, or at the inception or conclusion of a governmental assembly, is, however, a well-ingrained American tradition.” That tradition does not “impair religious freedom” as long as it is not coercive or involve proselytizing.

Lewin believes that neutral prayer may be correct in form but without any substance. He also wrote in his brief: “The personal injury suffered by an unwilling listener to distinctly Christian legislative prayer is no more than “discomfort” or “offense.” Such psychic injury is inadequate to warrant restraint on speech, and it should be insufficient to restrain religious expression.”

Rabbis have been invited to lead prayer in government, and Lewin pointed to Rabbi Morris Raphall, the first person to recite a Jewish prayer in the House of Representative on Feb. 1, 1860.

It offended some in America’s Christian community. A comment in The New York Herald in 1860, warned that “the next thing we shall have will be a Shaking Quaker dancing a reel.”

Another brief was filed by AJC’s general counsel, Marc Stern, on behalf of that organization.

“To be clear, we do not argue for banishing prayer from the public sphere,” it was stated in the brief filed by AJC and Jewish Council for Public Affairs.

However, the town of Greece “clearly crossed the vitally important line separating permissible government acknowledgment from unconstitutional government coercion, proselytization, advancement, endorsement, sponsorship and encouragement of religion.” Therefore, the two organizations urged the court to allow prayer in governmental meetings as long as there is no attempt at establishing a particular religion.

The Beckett Fund for Religious Liberty also filed a brief before the Supreme Court, noting that this country’s founding fathers “knew what it meant to have a state church, and legislative prayer doesn’t come close. … Legislative prayer wasn’t what they banned when they said there would be no official state church,” wrote Eric Rassbach, deputy general counsel.

“This case is about whether the professional offended will be able to strong-arm cities into banning anything that could be remotely interpreted as religious,” Rassbach stated in his brief. “Courts should get out of the business of trying to make everyone happy with the government. All too often it is the grouchiest members of society who get their way at the expense of honoring religious diversity.”

Suzanne Pollak writes for JT’s sister publication, Washington Jewish Week.

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