Riverhead invocations OK; Supreme Court upholds prayers

Supervisor Sean Walter at the town inauguration ceremonies this past January. (Credit: Tim Gannon, file)
TIM GANNON PHOTO | Supervisor Sean Walter at the town inauguration ceremonies this past January.

Can Supervisor Sean Walter get an ‘Amen?’

According to the United States Supreme Court, he sure can.

The Supreme Court on Monday ruled that an upstate New York town is not violating the First Amendment by having a public prayer before its Town Board meetings. And that case — first taken up by the Supreme Court last fall — will impact the Riverhead Town Board, which has been having a public invocation before its meetings since 2011, with the invocation being read by different local clergy member at each meeting.

“I’m very happy about that,” said Mr. Walter, who pushed for invocations before Town Board meetings. “I’ve followed the case very carefully, as you can imagine.”

The Riverhead Town Board’s invocations have come from clergy affiliated with the Roman Catholic Chruch, Temple Israel, First Congregational Church, Baptist Church, Methodist Church, North Shore Christian Church, The Salvation Army, The House of Praise Christian Revival Center, and other religions — and even the chaplain from Riverhead Raceway.

Mr. Walter said the town’s program is run by Rabbi Bill Siemers of Temple Israel of Riverhead, through the Riverhead Clergy Council.

With the exception of Temple Israel, most of the clergy who give invocations at Riverhead’s meetings are from various denominations of Christianity, Mr. Walter acknowledged, but he said if someone from a Muslim, Hindi, Buddhist or other religion wanted to give the invocation at a Town Board meeting, they would be welcome.

He said he is not aware of any organized branch of those religions locally.

“Because of this, it’s difficult to have a more diverse invocation, but they are certainly welcome,” he said. “As much as it would be odd for me as a Christian to have, say, a Wiccan come in, if they wanted to come in and give the invocation, that would be fine. Our invocation is open to whoever wants to come in.”

Mr. Walter said the only opposition came in a 2013 complaint to the town Ethics Board that he says came about after he mentioned that there was a National Day of Prayer and suggested their should be a town day of prayer.

The Ethics board investigated and found no violation.

Mr. Walter still has a copy of the letter by the Ethics Board ruling in his favor hanging in his office. The Ethics board doesn’t indicate who made the complaints, although Mr. Walter believes it was a member of the local Democratic party.

The dispute in the Town of Greece was brought in 2008 by Susan Galloway and Linda Stephens, one a Jew and one an atheist, who claimed that most of the prayers read before that town’s meetings are Christian prayers. They also argue that people attending these meetings may feel coerced to participate in the prayers.

A U.S. District Court had ruled in favor of Greece, saying there was no policy of discrimination favoring Christian prayers, but a U.S. Second Circuit appeals court reversed that decision, “holding that some aspects of the prayer program, viewed in their totality by a reasonable observer, conveyed the message that Greece was endorsing Christianity,” according to court papers.

That ruling was challenged further, and the case before the U.S. Supreme. It heard in November and a 5-4 ruling was issued on Monday by Justice Anthony Kennedy.

It read: “The town of Greece does not violate the First Amendment by opening its meetings with prayer that comports with our tradition and does not coerce participation by non-adherents. The judgment of the U. S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit is reversed.”

A 1972 U.S. Supreme Court ruling in a Nebraska case called “Marsh vs. Chambers” had previously established that invocations before legislative bodies are not in violation of the Constitution.

“The First Congress voted to appoint and pay official chaplains shortly after approving language for the First Amendment, and both Houses have maintained the office virtually uninterrupted since then,” Justice Kennedy wrote in his decision on Monday.

The 80-page decision further stated, “From the Nation’s earliest days, invocations have been addressed to assemblies comprising many different creeds, striving for the idea that people of many faiths may be united in a community of tolerance and devotion,even if they disagree as to religious doctrine. The prayers delivered in Greece do not fall outside this tradition. They may have invoked, e.g., the name of Jesus, but they also invoked universal themes, e.g., by calling for a ‘spirit of cooperation.’ Absent a pattern of prayers that over time denigrate, proselytize, or betray an impermissible government purpose, a challenge based solely on the content of a particular prayer will not likely establish a constitutional violation.”

Justices Kennedy, John Roberts, Samuel Alito, Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas, all of whom were appointed by Republican presidents, voted in the majority, while justices Stephen Breyer, Elena Kagan, Ruth Ginsburg, Sonia Sotomayor, all of whom were appointed by Democratic presidents, voted in the minority.

Justice Kagan wrote in a dissenting opinion: “I respectfully dissent from the Court’s opinion because I think the Town of Greece’s prayer practices violate that norm of religious equality—the breathtakingly generous constitutional idea that our public institutions belong no less to the Buddhist or Hindu than to the Methodist or Episcopalian.”