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Opinion: The Problem With Prayer at Town Meeting


Published March 9, 2016 at 10:00 a.m.
Updated March 15, 2016 at 8:10 p.m.

Selectboard chair Peter Lyon - JUDITH LEVINE
  • Judith Levine
  • Selectboard chair Peter Lyon

The sign welcoming a driver to Groton says, "Where a small town is like a large family." Not like my family, I grumbled. I was on my way to the Groton town meeting, which was going to open with a prayer.

In January, Groton's selectboard adopted a resolution to reinstate prayer at the gathering. "Recognizing the need for Divine Wisdom, Counsel and Blessing upon government entities and civil communities, we do enter into agreement to exercise the God-given privilege to call upon the Divine to solemnize the town hall meetings of Groton," the resolution begins. It instructs the board to open the floor to invocations before the gavel, which chair Peter Lyon did.

A dissenter, Mark Gleicher, spoke first. Tensely holding a sheaf of paper, he read the resolution's preamble. "This is completely inappropriate language for a government entity," he said. "What were you thinking?"

"You want to pray, go to your church, synagogue, mosque. You don't have to come to town hall to do it," he continued. "My prayer ... if you want to call it that, is for this town to move on and take care of town business." Erik Volk, who identified himself as a former church deacon, later stood to agree.

But as soon as Gleicher finished, prayer started. Lawrence Daniels rose, closed his eyes and bowed his head. Then, under the sign of the old Groton High Gremlins, with the sacramental doughnuts and coffee arrayed at the back of the sanctuary and fluorescent light shining on his bald pate like a blessing, Daniels asked for "heavenly wisdom" in guiding the town's decisions. He ended, "In Jesus' name, amen."

Some people answered "Amen." Others — including a half dozen waiting in the parking lot to avoid the prayer — decidedly did not. Also absent was the resolution's lobbyist and drafter, Pastor Dennis Walton of the First Baptist Church.

Gleicher called the resolution "clearly divisive." As a resident of more than 30 years, he should know. Prayer has surely divided this town.

"For about 20 years, one guy gave the prayer," Altoon Sultan, an artist and longtime Groton resident, told me. "He may have mentioned God, but definitely not Jesus Christ." When that man died, however, Jesus entered Groton's public forum. Opponents protested. For a bit, meetings opened with a moment of silence.

This did not sit well with Walton. So, in 2014, he addressed town meeting on Groton's need for public prayer. He said it was legal. "There was much discussion about other religions and saying prayer or not," the minutes record. Sultan was among the more passionate discussants. She's not against prayer, or Christianity, she told me; she just doesn't relish being coerced into tacit worship of somebody else's god as a ticket to civic participation.

"I know that Jesus Christ is important to many of you, and I respect this," she recalled saying. "But Jesus Christ is not my savior. I am Jewish. My grandparents were killed because they were Jewish." She told me there are also atheists in town "who resent any prayer at all." She asked for nondenominational prayer.

Walton paid her no mind. That year he delivered a long invocation that ended, "In the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, amen."

Sultan had had it. "Here we go again!" she exclaimed loudly.

"There was a hubbub," she recalled.

Walton brought the topic up again in 2015, which led to the resolution. At the end of last week's meeting, Gleicher proposed that the policy be suspended until the community could discuss it. There were no "nays."

"Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof." The first words of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, the Establishment Clause, would seem to prohibit a Baptist preacher from taking the podium to bless a public meeting whose participants might be Hindus, Jews, Wiccans or none of the above. Indeed, in the 1960s and '70s, the Supreme Court did a lot to define the limits of constitutional public prayer. It cannot, for instance, have the "primary effect of either advancing or inhibiting religion."

Then, starting in the '80s, the Court began to loosen the seams of the Establishment Clause. In Marsh v. Chambers (1983), the majority ruled that Nebraska's state legislature was acting legally in hiring and paying a statehouse chaplain with taxpayer dollars. So long as the chaplain didn't proselytize and the government didn't hold up one faith as superior or put down another, the policy passed muster.

Mainly, though, Marsh said the practice was OK because it had always been OK. The First Congress appointed a legislative chaplain, for God's sake. "In light of the history, there can be no doubt that the practice of opening legislative sessions with prayer has become part of the fabric of our society," the ruling said. "To invoke divine guidance on a public body entrusted with making the laws is not, in these circumstances, a violation of the Establishment Clause; it is simply a tolerable acknowledgment of beliefs widely held among the people of this country."

In other words, wrote blogger Hemant Mehta on the atheist site Patheos, "If [the Founding Fathers] didn't think it violated the First Amendment, then we shouldn't think it violates the First Amendment." Mehta called this "originalism on steroids."

When Walton spoke up for prayer on the first Tuesday of March 2014, another critical Supreme Court case was pending. Town of Greece v. Galloway would soon affirm the decision of the town board of Greece, N.Y., to invite only Christian clergy to give its invocations — at every meeting for the past 10 years. Rejecting the complaints of a Jew and an atheist, the conservative majority found that the board meant no harm. They invited Christians because most Greecians were Christian.

Justice Elena Kagan dissented. "Honest oversight or not, the problem remains: Every month for more than a decade, the Board aligned itself, through its prayer practices, with a single religion," she wrote. Justice Samuel Alito called her objection "niggling."

So Walton was right that Groton's prayer — even in Jesus' name — was legal. And so, it would seem, is the resolution. Its language meticulously threads its way through these rulings to avoid legal snags. "No person in attendance shall be required to participate in any prayer that is offered. Prayers offered are not to be for the purpose of proselytizing, disparaging or expressing superiority over others," it reads. "This policy is not intended, and shall not be implemented or construed in any way, to affiliate the town with, nor express the town's preference for, any faith or religious denomination."

Somehow these do not sound like the words of a small-town Baptist preacher. Did Walton act alone, or consult a higher power other than his Higher Power?

I poked around. Americans United for Separation of Church and State sent me an American Civil Liberties Union brief challenging the public invocation practices of Point Pleasant Beach, N.J. Attached was the town's policy, including a paragraph reading: "This policy is not intended..." A Google search of that language yielded a cascade of identical texts from Cleveland, Memphis, Roanoke, Va., Arcadia, Fla., and scores of other U.S. jurisdictions large and small.

All are titled "Policy Regarding Opening Invocations Before Meetings." All begin with a march of Whereases citing court precedents. All buffer their implementation clauses with caveats, including the stuff about what's not intended.

And where did these drafters — including, probably, Walton — find this text? It turns out to be model legislation from the National Center for Law & Policy that is also circulated by the Alliance Defending Freedom, the outfit that took Greece v. Galloway to the Supreme Court.

These organizations — two among dozens, including one composed of U.S. Congress members — present themselves as defenders of the freedom of religion. But in fact they are defenders exclusively of the freedom of a certain kind of Christian religion. ADF describes its legal work as "Christ-centered." It requires job applicants to agree to a statement of faith, which begins, "We believe the Bible to be the inspired, infallible, authoritative Word of God."

NCLP "is dedicated to preserving and reclaiming religious freedom." It is "motivated ... by our faith to keep the doors open for the spread of the Gospel of Jesus Christ." But it is just as intent on keeping the doors closed to the spread of any other ideology.

Since 2011, for instance, NCLP has been pursuing a lawsuit against a California school district it claims is violating the First Amendment — by teaching children the heathen religion of yoga.

To groups like ADF and NCLP, exercising religious freedom means imposing their beliefs on others — prohibiting abortion, refusing to serve same-sex couples or banning "blasphemous" books from school libraries. The goal is nothing less than the Christianization of U.S. government. And, as the Moral Majority did with sex ed in the 1980s, these organizations start the crusade for public prayer at the grassroots: small-town school boards and town councils, e.g., the Groton Selectboard. Dennis Walton is no lone evangelist.

In an almost entirely Christian nation, the founders had both philosophical and practical reasons for keeping religion out of state business. Thomas Jefferson deleted references to Jesus Christ in Virginia's religious freedom bill — a precursor to the Establishment Clause — "to comprehend, within the mantle of [the law's] protection, the Jew and the Gentile, the Christian and Mahometan, the Hindoo, and infidel of every denomination."

George Washington wanted to prevent holy wars. "Religious controversies are always productive of more acrimony and irreconcilable hatreds than those which spring from any other cause," he wrote.

But looking around at the forces arrayed against Jews, "Hindoos" and other infidels, it strikes me that holy war is our best hope. In fact, the battle has been joined. A group calling itself the Satanic Temple applied to give the invocation at the city council of Phoenix, Ariz., which had sent out an open invitation.

The move threw the council members into a tizzy. Their policy wouldn't let them reject the temple, but their consciences wouldn't let them accept it. At the meeting, people wept and called out to the "one true god." A woman with cherry-red hair described the website of one of the female applicants as "misogynist," because it showed her "in bondage, in nudity, in all kinds of positions that are not appropriate." The board had no choice but to repeal the policy and replace it with a moment of silence.

What if Satanists invaded our town meeting? Mark Gleicher wondered aloud at town meeting.

Gather your lawyers, Groton. Here comes the Supreme Court case Beelzebub v. Town of Groton.

The original print version of this article was headlined "Nobody Say 'Amen'"