Walter defends prayers in Town Hall as Supreme Court takes up issue

11/07/2013 3:32 PM |
Riverhead Town Board

TIM GANNON FILE PHOTO | Supervisor Sean Walter reading a Bible verse in Town Hall in 2012.

Back in 2010, during Supervisor Sean Walter’s first year in office, he proposed that the Town Board begin its meetings with an invocation, or prayer, recited by a local member of the clergy, with a different clergy member each meeting.

There was some initial concern about violating separation of state and religion requirements, but the idea took effect in August of 2010 and has been in effect even since — with little or no objections.

The board has had Catholic, Jewish, Baptist, and other clergy leaders do the invocations over that time.

Now, a dispute in the upstate Town of Greece could bring this issue back to the forefront.

A lawsuit brought by an atheist woman and a Jewish woman challenging that town’s pre-meeting prayers is before the U.S. Supreme Court.

That case, called Town of Greece vs. Susan Galloway and Linda Stephens, was heard before the U.S. Supreme Court on Wednesday.

Ms. Galloway and Ms. Stephens claim that most of the prayers read before that town’s meetings are Christian prayers.  They also argue that people at these meetings may feel coerced to participate in the prayers.

The Supreme Court has yet to render a decision.

Mr. Walter mentioned the case prior to Wednesday’s Riverhead Town Board, where Pastor Scott Kraniak, the chaplain of Riverhead Raceway as well as the pastor of the Centereach Bible Church, gave the invocation.

“Today the Supreme Court is hearing a case about whether towns can introduce a Town Board meeting with an invocation,” Mr. Walter said. “I find it interesting that at all other levels of government this has passed constitutional muster, yet at the town level, for some reason, it’s before the Supreme Court.”

Mr. Walter said Congress, the state Legislature, and the county Legislature all begin their meetings with a prayer.

“I say this to let everybody know,” Mr. Walter said. “We do this, and it’s non-denominational. If somebody comes in, they will pray what they wish to pray, and if somebody wants to come in from any particular sect or religion, we’re open to that.  And we’ll either sit or stand, whatever they want us to do.”

The supervisor then added, “I hope that God’s wisdom is with the Supreme Court in making this very interesting decision.”

The Supreme Court in a 1983 case called Marsh vs. Chambers upheld the practice of starting legislative meetings with an invocation.

tgannon@timesreview.com

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