Ok to pray?
Supreme Court ruling unlikely to change city practice on pre-meeting prayer
By André Coleman 05/08/2014
As a lawyer and a student of the Constitution, few others in Pasadena have a deeper understanding of the need for separation of church and state than Pasadena Mayor Bill Bogaard. As Bogaard knows, the Constitution’s guarantees cut both ways, providing freedom both of and from religion.
While some councils open their proceedings with a prayer, it is unlikely the Pasadena council will do so, at least not as long as Bogaard is mayor.
Bogaard, who was first elected mayor in 1999, told the Weekly that he has not considered opening council meetings with prayers.
Although a generic prayer or invocation has been performed at City Council swearing-in ceremonies, “In my time as mayor, we have not considered calling upon a cleric or other for invocation,” Bogaard said. “We haven’t generally done it.”
On Monday, the Supreme Court voted 5-4 along conservative and liberal lines to uphold the right of local government bodies to open meetings with prayer. However, the court ruled that those prayers could not attack other faiths or atheists and could not be of an evangelical nature.
“As a practice that has long endured, legislative prayer has become part of our heritage and tradition, part of our expressive idiom, similar to the Pledge of Allegiance, inaugural prayer, or the recitation of ‘God save the United States and this honorable Court’ at the opening of this Court’s sessions,” wrote Justice Anthony Kennedy for the majority.
The majority justices further argued that the intended audience is not “the public, but lawmakers themselves.”
The ruling stems from a case in which the town council of Greece, NY, said that members of all faiths, and atheists, were welcome to give the council’s opening prayer. The controversy began after most of the prayers were delivered by Christian chaplains, many of them making direct references to Jesus Christ.
In 1983, in Marsh v. Chambers, the Supreme Court upheld the Nebraska Legislature’s practice of opening its legislative sessions with an invocation — defined as calling on a deity, spirit, etc. for aid, protection or inspiration — from a paid Presbyterian minister, saying that such ceremonies were “deeply embedded in the history and tradition of this country.”
Last year, the US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit in Pasadena ruled that several pastors who invoked the name of Jesus during prayers before City Council meetings in Lancaster did not endorse Christianity for the city. In 2009, a complaint by the American Civil Liberties Union prompted city officials to adopt a nonsectarian prayer policy, but in 2010 a preacher ended his prayer in the name of Jesus, which resulted in the filing of a lawsuit. Plaintiffs in the case, Shelly Rubin, wife of former Jewish Defense League leader Irv Rubin, and Maureen Feller, filed a similar suit against the city of Burbank.
While other local city councils still say prayers to start meetings, and Pasadena, like other cities, still hosts a Mayor’s Prayer Breakfast each year, Bogaard said he doesn’t expect the Pasadena council to change while he’s a member.
“My comfort level is to keep a strong separation,” Bogaard said.