Prayer ruling a blessing

Recent Supreme Court ruling upholds what Mid-Missourians already do

“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof … ”

That phrase is known as the “establishment clause” of the U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment, and it’s been the official policy of the United States since December 1791, when the amendment was ratified by the 13 states.

Three weeks ago, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled it’s okay for a government agency, like a city council, to have a prayer before the meeting begins.

The ruling will have little effect on what Mid-Missourians experience.

For most of the last two decades, each Jefferson City Council meeting has begun with a prayer said by a council member.

“I was pleased with the case because it confirmed my belief our practice is lawful,” City Counselor Drew Hilpert said last week.

Missouri Municipal League spokeswoman Laura Holloway said the statewide organization has no official position on the issue.

“Based on a 1983 U.S. Supreme Court case,” she said last week, “cities believe that prayer is OK before public meetings — and many cities do take this opportunity.”

That 1983 case, Marsh v. Chambers, involved a challenge to the Nebraska Legislature’s opening each day with a prayer.

And the high court ruled then that prayers by tax-supported legislative chaplains can be found throughout U.S. history, including the first Continental Congress and the first Congress established by the Constitution.

The 1983 case said prayer before legislative meetings is a “part of the fabric of our society” and “simply a tolerable acknowledgement of beliefs widely held among the people of this country.”

This year’s high court ruling came in a lawsuit filed against the town of Greece, N.Y. — a Rochester suburb of nearly 100,000 residents. Two women sued, objecting to an overall Christian slant of the prayers before the five-member town board’s monthly meeting having.

They thought any prayers offered should be more generic. Susan Galloway is Jewish. Linda Stephens is an atheist.

The prayers before the town board’s meetings were said by local clergy chosen from listings in the local directory — which list mostly Christian congregations and clergy.

While a U.S. Court of Appeals ruled in 2012 that the prayers were an endorsement of a particular religious viewpoint, the U.S. Supreme Court heard the arguments last November, and overturned the appelate ruling six months later.

Monsignor Robert Kurwicki of the Jefferson City Catholic Diocese is the chaplain for the Missouri House, and says a prayer at the beginning of most House sessions.

“My reaction was two-fold — one of joy that the ability to pray before government meetings was recognized as valuable,” he said. “And the second was one of relief, because there was a little bit of worry that prayer before meetings would be removed.”

Based on the tone set by the speaker of the House, Kurwicki said, his prayers are “inclusive and bring up and accentuate the positive aspects of the people working together in the state, for the betterment of all people. So, we’re not pushing a particular denomination or religious background.

“We are looking for these prayers to be a source of unity — but without being so watered down that they don’t mean anything.”

The Rev. Carl Gauck, a mostly retired Lutheran pastor, is the state Senate’s chaplain.

He also was pleased to see the May 5 ruling. He noted that people are not required to be in the chamber to hear the prayer at the beginning of a meeting.

“I truly believe that there should be the freedom to exercise one’s religion,” Gauck said adding that his prayers generally focus on issues and cooperation among lawmakers — not on Christian doctrine or issues.

That also is Jefferson City’s approach, Hilpert said.

“We utilize time before the actual meeting to allow one councilmen to utilize their freedom of speech to say a prayer or make a statement,” he said.

Kurwicki said prayers before a legislative session offer inspiration.

“Many times our public officials enter into a meeting, and they’re very worried, concerned, sometimes indecisive about what they need to do,” he explained, “and they’re looking for inspiration that, I believe, God can give to elected and non-elected people, through prayer.”

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