It was just March 4 that Fort Smith resident David Harris was raising questions about prayer at public meetings in Arkansas’ second largest city and the inclusion of non-Christian groups during invocations at public meetings. Now just two months later, the United States Supreme Court has spoken and said prayer — even to a specific deity — at public meetings is perfectly legal.
In a split 5-4 decision Monday (May 5), the majority of Supreme Court justices ruled in favor of the town Greece, N.Y., which was fighting for its right to allow local clergy to open its meetings in prayer in the case Town of Greece, New York v. Galloway.
According to the Court, the town of 94,000 had previously held a simple period of silence for several years prior to 1999, when "newly elected town supervisor, John Auberger, decided to replicate the prayer practice he had found meaningful while serving in the county legislature."
Auberger would invite a local clergyman — chosen at random from a local directory — to deliver a prayer before the start of its regular business.
The method is similar to one Fort Smith Mayor Sandy Sanders outlined for The City Wire in March when he was questioned about Harris's concerns regarding the selection of religious leaders to lead the opening prayer at Fort Smith City Board meetings. Sanders’ office provided documentation showing that the city of Fort Smith had made attempts to include other faiths in the opening prayer ritual at city Board meetings. Among the non-Christian groups to be invited, the mayor's office had reached out to the Arkansas International Buddhist Temple, Wat Budda Samakitham, Masjid Al Salam and the United Hebrew Congregation.
The lawsuit against the city of Greece was brought by two men who alleged that the practice of Greece and numerous other cities – possibly Fort Smith – across the United State's violated the First Amendment's Establishment Clause by showing preferential treatment of Christians over other religious groups, an argument which was struck down by the Court's majority.
"Respondents argue, in effect, that legislative prayer may be addressed only to a generic God," Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote in the majority opinion. "The law and the Court could not draw this line for each specific prayer or seek to require ministers to set aside their nuanced and deeply personal beliefs for vague and artificial ones."
Kennedy also wrote that prayers held before legislative sessions, such as a city council or quorum court, generally "lend gravity to the occasion and reflect values long part of the Nation's heritage."
"Prayer that is solemn and respectful in tone, that invites lawmakers to reflect upon shared ideals and common ends before they embark on the fractious business of governing serves that legitimate function. If the course and practice over time shows that the invocations denigrate nonbelievers or religious minorities, threaten damnation, or preach conversion, many present may consider the prayer to fall short of the desire to elevate the purpose of the occasion and to unite lawmakers in their common effort. That circumstance would present a different case than the one presently before the Court."
In a dissenting opinion, Justice Stephen Breyer agreed with a previous Court of Appeals decision that faulted the city and pointed to the fact that many of the prayers delivered at the Greece, New York, meetings were delivered by a single Christian denomination.
"That significance would have been the same had all the prayers been Jewish, or Hindu, or Buddhist, or of any other denomination. The significance is that, in a context where religious minorities exist and where more could easily have been done to include their participation, the town chose to do nothing."
Reached for comment Monday, Sanders said he was pleased the Supreme Court ruled in favor of a practice that has been a regular part of Fort Smith Board meetings for years.
"For many years, the Fort Smith Board of Directors regular meetings have been opened with prayer and I am pleased the Supreme Court has now decided that this practice does not violate the U.S. Constitution. In Fort Smith, we have invited religious leaders of a variety of faiths to volunteer to bring the opening invocation. The decision to participate is left to those individuals."
The case has long been drawing the attention of Arkansas' Congressional delegation, with U.S. Sen. John Boozman, R-Ark., having filed an amicus brief to the Court last year as a part of this case along with other members of the Senate, including Republican Marco Rubio of Florida.
"In this religiously diverse Nation, the best means of ensuring that the government does not prefer any particular religious view in the context of legislative prayer is not to silence some such prayers while allowing others," the Senators wrote. "It is to allow those who pray to do so in accordance with the dictates of their consciences. …allowing those who offer legislative prayers to pray in accordance with their own consciences is the approach that best serves the value of religious liberty that underlies the First Amendment."
Boozman, who is recovering from heart surgery, was unavailable for comment, though Communications Director Sara Lasure said she was told he was pleased with the decision, which was "the outcome he hoped for." Other members of Arkansas’ Congressional delegation expressed their support of the court's ruling. Following are the un-edited statements of the delegation who responded to requests for comment:
• U.S. Sen. Mark Pryor, D-Ark.: “Prayer is an important part of my daily life and in the lives of countless Americans and I am thankful the Supreme Court has upheld this core American value.”
• U.S. Rep. Tom Cotton, R-Dardanelle: "I applaud the Court's decision to allow citizens to freely exercise their First Amendment rights, recognizing that prayer has long been a part of public meetings in this country."
• U.S. Rep. Steve Womack, R-Rogers: "I appreciate the Supreme Court reaffirming the longstanding tradition of Americans choosing whether or not they want to open a public meeting with prayer. Far too often, those who espouse liberty try to encroach upon their neighbors. Today, our highest court protected the rights of Americans to freely practice their religions."