Sunday Read: Debate over public prayer rekindles in North Country

County and local governments in northern New York are grappling with new questions surrounding the practice of beginning public business with Christian prayer.

The Plattsburgh Press-Republican is reporting this morning that Essex County officials are at odds over whether to resume distinctly Christian prayer before board of supervisors meetings.

According to reporter Lohr McKinstry, the prayers were begun several years ago.

The practice was discontinued recently after County Attorney Daniel Manning III told supervisors they needed a policy to cover the prayers, which should be nondenominational in nature.

But Supervisor Ronald Moore (R-North Hudson) tried to move a motion this week to resume Christian prayer at the board’s regular monthly meetings.

His resolution was tabled so Manning could provide them with more information on how to legally go about it.

The county appears to be moving toward a non-denominational prayer.  Meanwhile, Washington County faces similar questions.  This from Jon Alexander’s article earlier this month in the Glens Falls Post Star:

Hartford Supervisor Dana Haff has spent the past two years as the county board’s chaplain. He opens the monthly board meeting with sometimes politically charged sermons.

The issue blew up earlier this year when Greenwich Supervisor Sara Idleman criticized Haff’s usage of terms and phrases like “God” and “Our Lord,” alleging Haff’s prayers are unconstitutional because they essentially serve as an official county endorsement of Christianity.

NYCLU Capital Region Director Melanie Trimble in a letter sent Friday to county board Chairman John Rymph said Washington County’s monthly benediction violates the establishment clause of the first amendment of the U.S. Constitution.

Earlier this spring, a court rules against an upstate town — Greece, NY — which had begun meetings with a specifically Christian prayer.  This from the Associated Press:

An upstate New York town violated the constitutional ban against favoring one religion over another by opening nearly every meeting during an 11-year span with prayers that stressed Christianity, a federal appeals court ruled yesterday.

The 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals found that the town of Greece, a suburb of Rochester, should have made a greater effort to invite people from other faiths to open monthly meetings. The town’s lawyer says it will appeal the ruling in Galloway v. Town of Greece.

What do you think?  Should there be a specifically Christian moment of worship before public meetings?  If so, does it matter whether the prayer reflects the views of one particular Christian group?

Do we lose something if we remove this kind of worship from civic life?   And what about the growing percentage of New Yorkers who are not Christian, how should their values be respected?

This is a tough one, and we’ve had some rocky flare-ups over matters of religious faith, so be thoughtful and keep it civil.

Remember, we’re not talking about the merits of anyone’s particular faith or beliefs here:  we’re talking about the pros and cons of bringing those traditions into the civic and political arena.

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43 Responses to “Sunday Read: Debate over public prayer rekindles in North Country”

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  1. Larry says:

    Why not have a rotation of clergy or prayer leaders so that all constituent faiths are represented? Given the dismal record of County Boards of supervisors recently, this isn’t any time to stop praying!

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  2. TomL says:

    Not a tough one at all. Don’t mix secular government and religion. Prayers, except the most ecumenical calls for ‘thanksgiving’ and ‘wise decision making’ have no place in government meetings. Prayers at meetings too quickly slip into quasi-established religion – usually in the US a mainline protestant form. It is worth noting that there are a number of less mainline christian sects (Jehovah Witnesses, Mennonites) that object to prayer in government activities, for the reason that mixing government and religion can lead to government coercion of religion.

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  3. Ken Hall says:

    If Americans desire to reduce Government to a level similar to that of sports team prayers to win, beat, crush, …. the opposing team, then I reckon prayer will be/remain the norm for politicians dealing with public business.

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  4. mervel says:

    In general as a Christian I find it safer for governments, in particular local governments to not use these generic prayers. Christians believe in a distinct God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, we cannot nor should we pray to other conceptions of God, which for us would be praying to a false God ( I don’t mean that in an offensive way). So some of these generic prayers I could not participate in anyway, nor would I want to.

    So its a touchy issue, why not be safe and just table it, its not like our county governments are particularly Christian anyway.

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  5. knuckleheadedliberal says:

    Everyone can say a silent prayer anytime they want, anywhere they want, in school, in public meetings, at ball games, in office meetings, at the gym, anywhere. Aren’t public meetings already long enough?

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  6. mervel says:

    Totally agree knuckle.

    Plus what really goads me and this happens more in congress than it does locally, are when they use a prayer to God to make a speech.

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  7. Dave says:

    I have trouble understanding the kind of a person you have to be to insist on forcing your personal brand of religious belief on everyone at a meeting

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  8. Pete Klein says:

    Couldn’t care less.
    I’ve attended meetings where someone says something resembling a prayer and what I find is many there just sort of zone out while the “prayer” is being said.

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  9. IMO praying aloud at any public function violates both the Constitution and the putative beliefs of Christianity. It violates the Constitution by bringing religion into government. It violates the teachings of Jesus because it is a public display of religion. Prayer is (or should be) a private conversation between the believer and his/her maker. The Bible says that those who pray in public have their reward. If you are attending a public event and feel the need to have a conversation with God, as KHL and Mervel note, you are free to do so silently. There is no need or value to forcing it upon others. Some like Pete will ignore it and others will be annoyed by it. Fellow believers are free to pray silently without assistance. Religion is like marriage. It is a private relationship between two individuals or in the case of religion between the individual and God. You don’t invite the general public into private conversations with your spouse and you shouldn’t drag them into your conversations with God either. Doing so devalues the communication.

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  10. wj says:

    Y’all are great. Comments (so far) are level-headed and show lots of wisdom, tolerance and commonality. This is really encouraging.

    Makes me happy. Thanks.

    Like/Dislike this comment: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 3

  11. mervel says:

    The intersection is a fascinating.

    But James has some points, I am not against corporal prayer, I mean I do it every Sunday or Saturday or whenever I am with others who share my faith and we pray together.

    The hard part and interesting part is that there has been a tradition of public prayer by public officials at public meetings in the US, but its always been in this grey area. I don’t think all people who push for public prayer are trying to force their faith, I think they have a hard time putting why they want public prayer into words. I think what they really yearn for is a Norman Rockwell version of the past and a unified Christian tradition and the way they think things were in the past. The feeling is that if we don’t have that we are abandoning our roots and abandoning God and the consequences for the country will be bad.

    Some really do just want to have a formally Christian government, but I think they are in the minority. I honestly believe most people who really want this at the local level are just wanting a tradition, usually a nice middle class Protestant tradition. Which is fine they are not evil, they are not the Taliban. But the facts are it does not help the government nor does it help the faith and it is not logically consistent. I doubt many would be comfortable praying the Rosary before a meeting (of course as Knuckle pointed out that would REALLY make our meetings long and substantially less well attended than they are now).

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  12. Nor do I have any problem with group prayer in the context of a gathering of believers for religious services Mervel. And you stated it well when you said “it does not help the government nor does it help the faith and it is not logically consistent”. I did not mean to imply that those favoring such prayer in public meetings, schools, etc. were evil or the equivalent of the Taliban but frankly the past they envision as lost never was. It is an idealized notion of how things were based on one view of one part of society and ignoring that which does not fit the vision they long to “recreate” just as some deny the Holocaust or the mistreatment of slaves in pre-Civil War America in order to remain in their comfort zone. They are seeking security and comfort from trying times in an imaginary past. If they could actually go back there they’d find it wasn’t that different from now.

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  13. Terence says:

    Many people, religious or not, feel the need to collect their thoughts before taking important actions. My suggestion would be to allow a moment of silence before the meetings so everyone can get on the same wavelength and (hopefully) be on their best behavior for the rest of the session. Those who want to say a religious prayer can take advantage of that moment and pray quietly to themselves. And then perhaps a bell could be rung, and everyone can get down to business.

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  14. Jeff says:

    Having come from the generation where the old testament was read in school. Later a classmate would stand silent at the recitation of the pledge of allegience. The constitution says it should not establish…while allowing is not establishing, not encourage alternatives can be considered favoring and by someone therefore, establishment. So, call for a moment of silent prayer…. and /or reflection and so be it. I think prayer is good anytime. One of its better values is submission to a higher authority which even with a moment of reflection one can consider that the position they are in and tasks before them are serving a greater body than themselves and worthy of appropriate respect and gravity.

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  15. Kathy says:

    The reason some wish to pray at public meetings and/or government functions is because of a scripture – Psalm 33:12:

    Blessed is the nation whose God is the Lord …

    Many of our nation’s writings, documents, and all state constitutions make references to dependence and guidance from God.

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  16. Kathy says:

    … and some take seriously the need for God’s guidance. Thus, the prayer.

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  17. mervel says:

    Well if we just go with Democracy, majority rules sort of thinking; then we would in the North Country use the Catholic Christian tradition. Catholics are the majority religious tradition in the North Country, if we are going to have public prayers before government meetings they should be within the Catholic tradition, Kathy would you be comfortable with that?

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  18. Kathy says:

    Kathy would you be comfortable with that?

    Certainly.

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  19. mervel says:

    Ok.

    But what about Christians who are not Catholic? Do you know what I mean? It just seems like its a huge can of worms. The only way we can get by is by watering down the prayers, but then for many of us after you do that; they are close to blaspheme anyway.

    Just because we do not pray a common prayer prior to a public meeting does not mean that Psalm 33;12 is not valid.

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  20. mervel says:

    God’s providence provides us with good government which is a blessing. We should pray for our government and that God will guide it. But I don’t think that means we have the government pray, that should be our job.

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  21. knuckleheadedliberal says:

    Oh man! We’re not starting this again, are we?

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  22. Kathy says:

    I’m not suggesting one way or another that we should pray in these public or government venues. I was pointing out the “why”.

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  23. Peter Hahn says:

    And what about non-Christians? There surely will be people who won’t want to pray to somebody else’s religion. Even a generic Christian prayer might be a “false god” situation for them. As many many people have said above, anyone can say a prayer to themselves any time they want. Why insist on a public one that everyone has to participate in? In a tax-payer supported/serving public function?

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  24. knuckleheadedliberal says:

    Wouldn’t it be great to go to a meeting and have a buddhist monk lead things off with a couple minutes of Om’s?

    THAT would be a good way to clear peoples energy and set the right mood for a proper exchange of ideas.

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  25. Terence says:

    I’d like to improve on the suggestion for the minute of “OM”: I say they hire a Tibetan monk to blow that enormous Buddhist horn directly at the lawmakers for several earsplitting minutes… until the elected officials surrender and agree to focus on their taxpayer-funded job, which is passing sensible legislation.

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  26. JDM says:

    Peter Hahn: “And what about non-Christians?”

    What about tolerance?

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  27. Peggy K says:

    Leave it to a Republican to bring up a distraction like this to divert attention and energy away from the very real problems facing this county.

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  28. Brian says:

    Ugh, why are officials wasting time praying on the public dime? Why are they wasting time arguing about this? I think what we citizens need to pray for is fewer elected officials like Haff and more with a clue about the real concerns of the public.

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  29. Brian says:

    “What about tolerance?”

    JDM: Maybe once in a while allow a Muslim prayer before the meeting. How that’s suit you, Mr. Tolerance?

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  30. Paul says:

    I am a Catholic my wife and sons are Jewish. Why would I want to start a town meeting with a prayer that only suits me?

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  31. PNElba says:

    I wonder how many politicians like to pray at public meeting simply because they think it will garner them votes in the next election?

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  32. JDM says:

    Brian: “How that’s suit you, Mr. Tolerance?”

    This doesn’t sound like it’s coming from a very tolerant person, for one thing.

    My responses, however, is that if a rotation of prayers is where we are at in this country, so be. I don’t think the Christians should be specifically excluded from such a rotation.

    Likewise, if Islam is ok to teach in public schools (and it is being taught), Christianity should also be ok to be taught.

    I think that the Christian religion is being specifically omitted in this new “tolerant” world, and examples of that are present here on this blog.

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  33. Dave says:

    A rotational prayer system that hits every possible religion is a near impossibility. Do you know how many religions there are out there… do you know how many days and how much effort it would take to get through all of them?

    The way to be sure you are not specifically omitting someone’s religion is to have no prayers at all – of any kind or any religion. Then no one single religion is ever singled out for inclusion, or omission.

    Furthermore, and I know this may be shocking to some posters here, but let us not forget there are people who have no religion. For them, rotating through a bunch of flavors of religion – or trying to come up with some sanitized non-denominational prayer – is still omitting their thoughts on the issue.

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  34. Kathy says:

    I take the “dislike” response as an example of intolerance with some on this forum.

    My first 2 comments were to explain why some adhere to prayer before public meetings – for information only – and lots of people disliked that information. I offered it for those who may not be familiar with the Bible.

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  35. Mervel says:

    But everyone liked the idea of Buddhism….

    It’s not intolerance, its just that Christianity is not really very “in” right now. We have monks too!

    JDM has some points about inclusiveness and tolerance, we have a rich Christian tradition in this country and that seems to get whitewashed and ignored sometimes on the secular side of things. I think we are all too freaked out by religion. I would have no problem with a Muslim praying in a public forum as long as other faiths were welcome to do the same etc. Religion adds to a country makes it more textured and interesting.

    But specifically praying as a government entity is going to be a problem for the numerous reasons given. Also for me personally prayer is not generic, it is a specific religious and spiritual practice that is very important, it should never be open to compromise or used to make political points.

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  36. Mervel says:

    I mean consider a Christian compromising about not using the name Jesus in a prayer so others won’t be offended. I mean we are called to die for Jesus if called on, yet we won’t speak His name in a prayer to Him because we want to get along with the government?

    No we can’t be part of that, that is the whole point of having government be separate from our spiritual institutions and spiritual life, it protects us Christians as much as if not more so than the government.

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  37. knuckleheadedliberal says:

    Let’s change the name to the “Intolerance Button.”

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  38. JDM says:

    khl: :)

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  39. Lily says:

    Prayer in such Government settings needs to stop. Instead, I suggest they set aside a “Moment of Silence” where all in attendance can either pray to their own God, or at least consider why they are there. Ahem – to serve the citizens who elected them.

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  40. Peter Hahn says:

    We already do the pledge of allegiance to the flag. That should be enough for anyone.

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  41. Paul says:

    Terence’s 8:32 comment is the BEST comment I have ever seen on the In Box. Well done!

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  42. Walker says:

    In Matthew 6:6, Jesus says “But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.”

    Let Christians live by the word of Christ.

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  43. knuckleheadedliberal says:

    The word of the day, thanks to Jon Alexander of the Post Star: phenomenology.

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