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Thank justice: City Council prayers get legal blessing

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POSTED May 7, 2014 1:40 a.m.

Somewhere approaching 500 times in the last 23 years Manteca City Council meetings have opened with a prayer.

The jury is still out whether ministers or other practitioners of various faiths who prayed for divine wisdom for those about to engage in civic discourse had any positive effect.

One thing is for certain: What followed the prayer was neither a revival meeting nor a worship service.

The Supreme Court ruled Monday that public prayer prior to the start of municipal meetings doesn’t constitute the establishment of an official religion.

The Nine Apostles of the United States Constitution on a 5-4 split rejected arguments that the overwhelmingly Christian nature of such prayers at the opening of town board meetings in Greece somehow established an official religion in the upper New York State community.

The ruling followed conservative/liberal splits on the high court. In that sense it was a disappointment as it means four justices believe prayers before city council meetings are akin to an official embracement of religion.

They should perhaps sit in on a council meeting or two where those in the audience have the constitutional right to record the proceedings unlike they do in the chambers of the high court.

There is no speaking in tongues unless, that is, staff or consultants are conversing in the language of bureaucrats and technocrats. There is no coercing, no display of religious instruments, and no hand holding.  There is no shouting of “hallelujah” unless you count when a packed chamber bursts into applause at a council decision made on a contentious issue more likely have to do with where an asphalt road goes and not the pathway to someplace better.

The prayers are vanilla at best even on the rare occasions where Sikhs have opened a council meeting with a blessing.

There is no damnation of nonbelievers

And references to a higher authority — in the Vatican City as an example as opposed to Sacramento — are rarely made.

Invocations already follow the rules laid down Monday by the folks wearing the black robes as opposed to the white garments of the earthly representatives of many religions. They are non-denominational and do not denigrate nonbelievers or religious minorities.

And they certainly don’t preach conversion.

Since the age of 16 I have covered in the neighborhood of 1,900 council meetings between the cities of Manteca, Roseville, Rocklin, Lincoln, and Wheatland. All of them opened with a prayer.

During the same time I have been in a church for a worship services perhaps 150 times excluding funerals and weddings. Obviously the efforts of countless ministers and religious leaders didn’t move the needle one way or another.

Justice Anthony Kennedy — a conservative who in recent years has provided the swing vote for rulings that court scholars believe have a distinct liberal bent — took great pains to separate opening prayers at municipal meetings from teacher-led prayers in public schools or religious invocations at graduations.

Kennedy also noted the opening prayer is a tradition dating back to the Continental Congress. The court majority pointed to a 1983 precedent upholding prayer before a state legislature.

That said, Kennedy almost wistfully wrote, “Our traditions assumes that adult citizens, firm in their own beliefs, can tolerate and perhaps appreciate a ceremonial prayer delivered by  a person of a different faith.”

The justice would not like what is going on at many of our public institutions of higher education where ideas and beliefs that only fit a specific politically correct mold are neither appreciated or tolerated.

While that may seem a story for another day, it isn’t. The challengers —  one was Jewish and the other an atheist — to the City of Greece’s town meeting praying made it clear they did not want any representative of religion such as a Baptist minister who deviated from their personal belief system to have an official capacity of helping open a public meeting. It is clear because Greece, just like Manteca, relies on those who step forward to volunteer to offer the invocation.

Neither volunteered to do so.

A true test of the tolerance of elected officials sitting on municipal councils would be for an atheist or a practicing Wiccan to offer the invocation. As long as their invocation doesn’t invoke a specific deity, damn or ridicule others for their beliefs, or tries to convert they won’t run afoul of the opening prayer policies of cities like Manteca as blessed by the Supreme Court majority.

 

This column is the opinion of executive editor, Dennis Wyatt, and does not necessarily represent the opinion of The Bulletin or Morris Newspaper Corp. of CA.  He can be contacted at dwyatt@mantecabulletin.com or 209.249.3519.

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