City leaders back Supreme Court ruling on prayer in meetings

mowen@ledger-enquirer.comMay 6, 2014 

Columbus Council

JOE PAULL — jpaull@ledger-enquirer.com

In the wake of a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that allows legislative bodies to begin public meetings with prayer, city leaders in Columbus say they fully agree with the court’s position.

“I’m thrilled,” said at-large Councilor Skip Henderson. “If you look back at the founding of this country, it was based on Judeo-Christian values. If we’re going to do the work of the people, we need to be held to a higher authority.”

Columbus Council consistently begins meetings with a local religious figure leading the gathering in prayer. Leaders from various mainline faiths and denominations, and some not so mainline, have appeared before council.

The city’s other at-large councilor, Judy Thomas said that part of her job when she worked for former Mayor Jim Wetherington was to arrange for a religious leader to be at each council meeting.

“We made a conscientious effort, and the current mayor also makes a conscientious effort, to invite people from different religions,” Thomas said. “We’ve had Protestants, Catholics, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu. The whole gamut.”

Thomas said beginning the council meeting with prayer has a practical and beneficial side effect.

“I think it calms us down and brings us together at the beginning of the meeting, and I think that’s a good thing,” Thomas said.

Mayor Teresa Tomlinson agreed with Thomas about the value of beginning with prayer, but also of maintaining diversity in who is asked to lead the prayer.

“We all appreciate being able to start our meetings with a faithful or spiritual message,” Tomlinson said. “And we do strive to have a diversity of faith traditions represented.

“We also stress when we introduce them that they are representing their own faith traditions, so there’s no appearance of the city endorsing any particular religion.”

In a 5-4 split, the high court ruled Monday that Christian prayers did not violate the Constitution when said before an upstate New York town council, as had been alleged by a citizen who brought suit against the practice.

“Ceremonial prayer is but a recognition that, since this nation was founded and until the present day, many Americans deem that their own existence must be understood by precepts far beyond the authority of government,” Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote for the court’s conservative majority.

Despite the 5-4 split, all nine justices agreed that the concept of legislative prayer. A city and town council meeting, “need not become a religion-free zone,” wrote Justice Elena Kagan for the minority. The court’s minority argued for more religious diversity among those chosen to lead the prayers.

Kennedy was joined by Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito. Kagan was joined by Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer and Sonia Sotomayor.

All of the majority members are Catholic, as is Sotomayor. The other dissenters are Jewish, according to the Washington Post.

The case, Town of Greece vs. Galloway, involved a small city near Rochester, N.Y., where town council meetings are regularly opened with prayer. Because those chosen to present the prayer have been overwhelmingly Christian, a citizen, Susan Galloway, filed suit.

Initially, the 2nd Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals ruled in favor of Galloway, saying that because all the prayers between 1999 and 2007 were Christian, it amounted to an unconstitutional government “endorsement of a particular religious viewpoint.”

The Supreme Court ruled years ago that state legislatures may open with prayer, but the lawsuit argued that local councils should be looked upon differently because local residents sometimes appear before them seeking a favorable ruling on their behalf.

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