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On Religion

May 16, 2014

The quest for safe, generic, ceremonial prayers

As the members of the town board of Greece, New York, prepared for business, a local Catholic priest rose to offer a short prayer.

"Heavenly Father, you guide and govern everything with order and love," said Father John Forni of St. John the Evangelist parish. "Look upon this assembly of our town leaders. ... May they always act in accordance with your will, and may their decision be for the well-being of all. The Lord bless you and keep you. The Lord let his face shine upon you and be gracious to you. The Lord look upon you kindly and give you peace. Amen."

Perhaps it was the "Father" God reference, or even that final trinity of blessings, but this 2004 prayer was listed among those considered too "sectarian" during the Town of Greece v. Galloway case that recently reached the U.S. Supreme Court.

Most religious conservatives cheered the high court's 5-4 ruling, which said local leaders could continue to allow volunteers from different faiths to open meetings with "ceremonial" prayers that included explicit doctrinal references to their traditions, even references to Jesus Christ. The court majority also said it was crucial that one faith not dominate others and that prayers must not be allowed to "denigrate" other viewpoints, to "threaten damnation" or to "preach conversion."

However, Justice Anthony Kennedy noted for the majority: "To hold that invocations must be nonsectarian would force the legislatures sponsoring prayers and the courts deciding these cases to act as supervisors and censors of religious speech, thus involving government in religious matters to a far greater degree than is the case under the town's current practice of neither editing nor approving prayers in advance nor criticizing their content after the fact."

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