I want to address your editorial of July 17, “The Right Call On The Invocation.” I disagree with your conclusion to support the decision to end the invocation.
It is a given that Town Meeting does not represent an exercise of religion. It is an administrative, business meeting to deal with the workings and finance of Bourne.
You state, “…any invocation as an official part of a government proceeding is going to violate the First Amendment, even a Town Meeting in a relatively small New England municipality.” You add that, while attendees can pray privately, “an official prayer from the podium to launch the meeting is, as the expression goes, a bridge too far.” You note that sessions of Congress open with a prayer (nondenominational, I might add). You add, “But in light of a true reading (emphasis mine) of the First Amendment, the practice is questionable.”
For the sake of the readers, Amendment I begins with, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…” I take issue with what you deem to be “a true reading” of those clauses, since both are open to interpretation. It does not prohibit absolutely a public prayer, even a “Christian-infused” one, as evinced by the 2014 US Supreme Court case of Town of Greece (NY) v. Galloway (which can be read at supremecourt.gov/opinions/13pdf/12-696_bpm1.pdf.).
In that extensive decision, Justice Kennedy for the majority noted, “…any test must acknowledge a practice that was accepted by the Framers and has withstood the critical scrutiny of time and political change.”
The Supreme Court noted that governing bodies should not have to act as “supervisors and censors” of religious speech” and that it was “doubtful that consensus could be reached as to what qualifies as a generic or non-sectarian prayer.” The one constraint on the content of prayers is that they cannot show “a pattern over time that denigrates, proselytizes, or betrays an impermissible purpose,” which, if shown, would be a violation.
They add that a legislative prayer “is meant to lend gravity to the occasion and reflect values long part of the Nation’s heritage.” And, “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.”
So, contrary to the editor’s assertion that a Town Meeting prayer violates the Free Exercise clause of the Constitution, the Court itself has opined on and affirmed the acceptability of invocations.
That said, as I suggested to the board of selectmen in March, what is legal is not necessarily right.
In Town of Greece, the prayer was Christian in nature, much like our town invocations have been over the last many years. In the dissent to that 2014 opinion, Justice Kagan wrote, “…our Constitution makes a commitment still more remarkable—that however those individuals worship, they will count as full and equal American citizens. A Christian, a Jew, a Muslim (and so forth)—each stands in the same relationship with her country, with her state and local communities, and with every level and body of government. So that when each person performs the duties or seeks the benefits of citizenship, she does so not as an adherent to one or another religion, but simply as an American.”
Justice Kagan indicated that the majority decision violated the idea of religious equality and that, “…pluralism and inclusion in a town hall can satisfy the constitutional requirement of neutrality; such a forum need not become a religion-free zone.” (emphasis mine) Mr. Pickard’s decision and the Enterprise editorial believe it should be religion-free.
My letter to the editor last week was consistent with that dissenting opinion in asserting that a nonsectarian prayer (which, contrary to the majority opinion in Town of Greece, I believe is not difficult to arrange) is the best way to maintain a common legislative (and Town Meeting) tradition, but in a way that is religiously neutral and inclusive. It neither establishes a religion nor prevents the free exercise of one.
With all due respect to the editor, I believe the paper has interpreted the Constitution too narrowly in advocating for the elimination of the invocational prayer altogether. I reiterate that an interfaith invocation that reflects the gravity of the Town Meeting process is very possible, it is more than reasonable, and it is, at the very least, religiously neutral. Tradition can go hand-in-hand with religious neutrality to welcome all at Town Meeting. An interfaith invocation should be allowed. And to that, I say, Amen!
Robert A. Zibbell
Sea Breeze Drive