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Supreme Court Decision on Prayer Hits Home in Worcester City Hall

Wednesday, May 07, 2014


Worcester City Hall

The impact of the Supreme Court’s decision to allow city councils to begin meetings with prayer was not lost on followers of Worcester government.

In a 5 to 4 vote, the court ruled that pre-meeting Christian prayers at an Upstate New York town council did not violate the constitutional prohibition against government establishment of religion.

“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,” wrote Justice Anthony M. Kennedy for the court’s conservative majority.

Not enough clergy for prayers at every meeting

Though invocations at Worcester City Council meetings are rare, City Solicitor David M. Moore said council rules allow for one at every meeting. The trick, he said, is finding a clergy member for each meeting. It’s become increasingly difficult to arrange for this, so frequency has dropped.

However, in 2007 there was a move to seek a legal opinion regarding the appropriateness of invocations or prayers at meetings. City Clerk David J. Rushford responded with a candid letter to then Mayor Konstantina B. Lukes and the City Council.

“I am a longstanding champion of Worcester’s diversity. In every aspect of my duties at this office, I herald the many communities within Worcester, whether they be differentiated by color, age, sexual orientation, race, class,” Rushford wrote.

“I feel compelled to address religious diversity in that context of heralding our great diversity. We have defended and celebrated new ethnic groups coming into Worcester. We have been on the forefront of accepting, and even defending in the courts, the introduction of same gender marriage across the Commonwealth. I have witnessed City Councils being sensitive to age and sex discrimination with reference to civil service examinations and appointment to public safety employment positions. Why will we not apply that same lofty, evolved thinking to religion? How can we question whether or not we should tolerate a clergyperson invocating the name of a deity in a public setting?”

Rushford continued to write that all deities would likely be eventually featured at meetings, citing past meetings that included clergy from the Roman Catholic, Orthodox, Protestant denominations including Pentecostals, Universalists and Evangelists, Jewish, and Muslim.

“I am upset as a Worcester resident that this community would consider eliminating prayer from our public meetings.”

Worcester was ahead of the curve

The city council defeated the motion to receive a legal opinion, but asked the Clerk to advise clergy of the limitations on the content of those invocations. At the time, Worcester City Solicitor David M. Moore said the issue raised two fundamental principles in the U.S. Constitution: the free exercise clause and the establishment clause.

The U.S. Supreme Court had already determined that the practice of beginning legislative sessions with a prayer does not constitute an establishment of religion. In March v. Chambers, 463 U.S. 783, 103 S.Ct. 3330 (1983), the court said: “To invoke Divine guidance on a public body entrusted with making the laws is not, in these circumstances, an ‘establishment’ of religion or a step toward establishment; it is simply a tolerable acknowledgement of beliefs widely held among people of this country.”

“The Supreme Court explicitly said that it would not review the text of particular prayers,” Moore told the City Clerk.

“I have taken this opportunity to caution you that asking clergy to edit their prayers could very likely be construed as a violation of the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment in that you, a representative of the local government, would be attempting to restrict the freedom of religion. That could generate claims against both the city and you.”

Non-issue for new councilors

Seven years later, it’s hard to imagine that this was ever an issue – especially for new City Councilors. Councilor-At-Large Michael T. Gaffney, new to the job, said no one’s brought it up to him since he started the council.

Councilor-At-Large Morris A. Bergman took office in January. Since then, he recalls only occasional invocations at council meetings.

“I don’t have a problem with it as long as a variety of different religions are represented. The prayers are usually inspirational, something that anybody can get inspiration or learn from,” Bergman said.

“I don’t think it’s in your face, as long as every religion gets a fair chance. It’s not something people get offended by in Worcester in general," Bergman said.

On the other hand, five-term City Councilor-At-Large Kathleen M. Toomey misses the regular invocations.

“I personally believe we need all the help we can get,” Toomey said.

“I believe in prayer. Whether you believe in God or whether you don’t, you can use that time personally to meditate or whatever you do. I do believe that it sets the tone. It reminds us all of the incredibly great goal we have for the city and people’s lives and to ask for grace for wisdom and making decisions. I think is a very appropriate thing to do,” she said.

Toomey said there had been an issue in the past when one of the clergy used the word Jesus in an invocation, but there was no intent to offend.

“One has to realize that there are many different religions. We’ve had Muslims, we’ve had Rabbis … everyone possible that you could find to come in and reflect the vast diversity of religion in our community. I look at it as a bit of respect to have that diversity reflected at a council meeting. I happen to be Roman Catholic, and it doesn’t bother me at all. I welcome the opportunity to reflect before we have council meetings and to remember why we’re there," Toomey said.


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