Sparta to discuss prayer after Supreme Court ruling

Supreme Court says this week practice is consitutional

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— Even before the Supreme Court ruled that prayers before council meetings are constitutional, the township was mulling over plans for their own.

The idea to start with a prayer came because freeholders have a moment of silent prayer, said Mayor Molly Ann Whilesmith who acknowledged she was a strong supporter of prayers.

But the high court made it easier for Sparta Monday by upholding decidedly Christian prayers at the start of council meetings in municipalities across the country, declaring them in line with long national traditions though the country has grown more religiously diverse.

“I’m thrilled about it,” said Whilesmith just hours after the ruling. “Our forefathers didn’t envision that the separation of church and state precluded prayers” at public places.

The 5-4 ruling along ideological lines stems from a Greece, New York, case where two women objected to prayers at town meetings on grounds they violated the First Amendment clause that prohibits the establishment of religion. The town had included prayers for almost 10 years, offered almost exclusively by Christian clergymen, a practice the Jewish and atheist complainant objected to.

The content of the prayers is not significant as long as they do not denigrate non-Christians or try to win converts, the court said in the decision backed by its conservative majority.

Writing for the majority, Justice Anthony Kennedy said that forcing clergy to scrub the prayers of references to Jesus Christ and other sectarian religious figures would turn officials into censors. Instead, Kennedy said, the prayers should be seen as ceremonial and in keeping with the nation's traditions.

"The inclusion of a brief, ceremonial prayer as part of a larger exercise in civic recognition suggests that its purpose and effect are to acknowledge religious leaders and the institutions they represent, rather than to exclude or coerce nonbelievers," Kennedy said.

Justice Elena Kagan, writing for the court's four liberal justices, said, "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."

Byram Mayor Jim Oscovitch welcomed the decision and said he would discuss plans for prayers with the council in the coming weeks.

Byram does not have prayers before town council meetings but invites clergy to recite an invocation at reorganization meetings. So far the town has had two such invocations, one delivered by a Methodist minister and the other by a member of the Byram Christian Fellowship.

“I’m a big supporter and a big fan of public prayers,” said Oscovitch. “If I know my constituents, the majority will be open to it … With the troubled time we have in this country, some prayer would be good.”

But Gary Greenwald, an Orange County attorney and political commentator, was less than thrilled with the decision. He said the Supreme Court decision was a misreading of the difference between religion and government. He supported Justice Kagan’s opinion.

“No meeting, state run, should ever support any organized religion whether Buddhist, Hindu. Christian or Jewish,” said Greenwald who interpreted the decision as supporting Christianity. “It’s an absolutely wrong decision.”

Greenwald said he didn’t oppose prayer as long as it was innocuous and did not attach to any organized religion.

“No religion should mean no religion,” he said.

Colleen Brady, an adjunct professor at Seton Hall law school and a Byram resident, agreed with the Supreme Court majority in that prayers at town meetings didn’t violate the Establishment clause. She said the ruling left the door open to the possibility that in case prayers denigrated another religion or coercion of proselytizing, the courts could intervene again.

And she agreed with Oskovitch’s assessment that Byram residents would welcome prayers in Town Hall.

“Byram tends to be more of a conservative town,” she said. “I think he is correct on that.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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