Public prayer at start of town meetings eyed

Staff Writer

A public prayer could eventually be recited at the beginning of Township Committee meetings in Plumsted.

On April 1, Committeeman Vincent Lotito and Township Attorney Denis Kelly outlined a proposal that would establish guidelines for a sectarian prayer to be recited at the start of each meeting of the governing body.

Lotito said he proposed the resolution in part because other public entities in Plumsted that conduct meetings start their meetings with a prayer.

“When we have other meetings in town, there is a prayer that starts us off,” Lotito said. “From my perspective I want to be able to receive a blessing in order to do this work.”

According to Kelly, the legal basis for Plumsted’s resolution lies in a May 2014 decision from the U.S. Supreme Court in Town of Greece, New York, v. Galloway. In that case, Americans United for Separation of Church and State claimed the town violated the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution when officials allowed volunteer chaplains to open each meeting with a prayer.

The Establishment Clause forbids Congress from making any “law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”

In the majority opinion, the court ruled such proceedings before a public meeting do not violate the Constitution because they “comport with America’s tradition and do not coerce participation by nonadherents.”

“The American Civil Liberties Union brought suit indicating they thought [Greece, New York] was getting overly involved in a religion, so any township involved in that is certainly subject to any litigation,” Kelly said. “If someone thinks the township is favoring one religion or set of religions over another, then I think that would be problematic and subject to attack.”

Kelly said Plumsted’s resolution drew on the Supreme Court’s ruling in an attempt to forestall litigation, although he acknowledged legal action could still be initiated against the township.

“There are certain safeguards, and the structure that was put in place [in the Supreme Court case] was proposed in the resolution and I think it captures the essence of what [Lotito] was proposing,” Kelly said.

Lotito said officials would have to consider who would deliver a prayer and which religious denominations would be represented.

“We need to make sure we are neutral and we are not favoring anybody for religious reasons or nonreligious reasons,” Lotito said. “I think that in the selection process, we need to be careful.”

Lotito said research he conducted suggests Plumsted’s population of more than 8,500 people predominantly practice a form of Christianity. A small percentage of residents worship Judaism and Islam, and a small percentage identify as atheists.

Lotito said the way individuals will be chosen to offer the prayer at a committee meeting is one of the most important factors in making sure the proposed practice will work.

“Our process could be impugned based on how we select somebody. If we are doing things, even just unintentionally, that appear we have a predisposition toward one religion, that could create an issue,” he said.

Revisions have already been made to the proposal.

“The way the resolution first read was that [the committee] would pick someone on an annual basis, and that would be the one person [to offer the prayer] for the year,” Kelly said. Officials are considering other ways of determining who would offer a prayer at the start of committee meetings. They said one option would be to assign the task to Plumsted’s police and fire chaplains.

“If there are people who express interest, we are going to consider it,” Lotito said. “Our intent is that we do not want to impede the [conscience] of the person praying. We just want someone to come and minister to us.”

Some committee members said they were not certain they need to take formal action on a matter that appears to be legal under the Constitution.

“I don’t want to see some sort of ratification from our governing body to do something that is already our right,” Deputy Mayor Eric Sorchik said. “We legislate a lot of stuff in this country that does not necessarily need to be legislated.”

Mayor Jack Trotta said he “wasn’t sure” where he stood on the issue, but said he felt prayer before committee meetings was appropriate for the township.

“I feel we should start meetings with a prayer and I have no problem doing that. I just don’t know if we need a resolution,” Trotta said.

While Lotito said there is legal precedent that indicates a resolution is not required, he said having an outline concerning the practice would help residents understand the entire process.

“We don’t need a resolution as a committee to engage in [public prayer], but … we would preface or create a public policy that would be consistent with what the Supreme Court said,” Lotito said. “We would have that as a public document that would articulate our positions on the issue.”

A resolution concerning public prayer at Township Committee meetings may be considered at the panel’s 7 p.m. May 6 meeting in the municipal building.