Wednesday, September 18, 2019

Rabbi suggests opening town meetings with Noahide prayer


The law on whether or not it is legal to start a legislative body with a prayer is evolving, but for the time being many town legislatures open, typically with a Christian prayer. In the city of Ocala, Florida, one Rabbis has suggested that the prayer session should be open to other religions, and that the prayer should be suitable for Christians, Muslims, and Jews. The Rabbi says when he makes public prayers he cites the Noahide Laws, laws which would have Christians, among Buddhists, Hindus, and many others,  beheaded (here). The United States Congress has already been opened twice under the auspices of the Noahide Laws (here)

Government prayer: When is it OK?

Experts say there is 
a difference between prayer at city and town meetings, for example, as compared to a prayer vigil for which the city of Ocala has been sued.
Before every Ocala City Council meeting, everyone stands. An Ocala Police Department or Ocala Fire Rescue chaplain leads a prayer. The Pledge of Allegiance is recited. Then everyone sits and the meeting begins.

In Belleview, the City Commission holds a moment of silent prayer before people recite the pledge. The same happens in Dunnellon, unless someone volunteers to pray.

Reddick’s mayor leads the prayer at town meetings. In McIntosh town meetings, people recite the Lord’s Prayer. For the County Commission, one of the members leads the prayer.

In May 2014, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Town of Greece, New York vs. Galloway, et al. that legislative prayer was constitutional based on historic precedent. In previous decisions, the nation’s highest court decided prayer in this limited context could coexist with the principles of disestablishment and religious freedom.

Prayers at legislative meetings, Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote in the opinion, serve to “lend gravity to public proceedings and to acknowledge the place religion holds in the lives of many private citizens.”

“The principal audience for these invocations is not, indeed, the public but lawmakers themselves, who may find that a moment of prayer or quiet reflection sets the mind to a higher purpose and thereby eases the task of governing,” Kennedy wrote.

Further on in his opinion, Kennedy wrote, “The analysis would be different if town board members directed the public to participate in the prayers, singled out dissidents for opprobrium, or indicated that their decisions might be influenced by a person’s acquiescence in the prayer opportunity.”

The law on this issue is still evolving — with several cases working their way up to the Supreme Court — which leaves questions about its breadth.

The city of Ocala has no official policy as to who is allowed to guide prayers at meetings. Chaplains usually rotate the duty. Sometimes the chaplains provide overarching prayers that touch on universal themes. At least once this year, a chaplain recited the Lord’s Prayer.

Who will lead the prayer is decided before meetings and is printed on the agenda.

At least three other city boards include an invocation on meeting agendas, according to city agenda records.

Some interpretations of the May 2014 Supreme Court decision claim prayer is allowed at government meetings because the town of Greece, New York, reached out to other religious leaders to offer them an opportunity to lead prayer and they declined. Others argue there is no requirement to reach out to other religions, said Frayda Bluestein, the David M. Lawrence Distinguished Professor of Public Law and Government at the University of North Carolina’s School of Government.

“I believe that everyone should always affirm to a higher authority at the beginning of anything,” said Rabbi Yossi Hecht, of Chabad Lubavitch Jewish Center of Ocala, The Villages and Tri County.

Hecht said it is important to recognize the higher power and that humans are not making decisions on their own. He advocates for a moment of silence at school for children to pray or meditate. He thinks the prayer at Ocala City Council meetings should be open to different religions.

He suggests saying a prayer that is universally accepted for at least these three main religions: Christianity, Judaism and Islam.

Adults in Florida are slightly more religiously diverse than the southern United States as a whole. Seventy percent of adults in Florida are Christians, according to Pew Research Center data. That is 6 percentage points less than the South combined. Three percent of Florida adults are Jewish and roughly 1 percent are Muslim. In the South as a whole, Jewish and Muslim adults represent 1 percent of the population each.

Hecht said he understands that Ocala is a mainly Christian community, but said a more universal prayer provided by various religious leaders would not be hard to accomplish.

For example, he said, when he leads public prayers he speaks to the seven Noahide laws, which include do not kill, cheat, steal or curse God.

“I believe those laws are given to all mankind,” Hecht said.

The Star-Banner attempted to reach representatives of both the Islamic Center of Ocala and Masjid Darul-Islam of Ocala several times via phone calls or emails over multiple days, but was not able to connect with anyone.

The Rev. Donald J. Curran Jr., of Christ the King Anglican Church, said it does not matter to him who prays at the beginning of meetings. He said that prayer has a historic place at government meetings.

“The connection between faith and government agencies is nothing new,” he said.

But to what extent religion and government can mingle is still being determined in the court system. The city of Ocala, its police chief, and its mayor — at one point — have been involved in part of that process.

A federal lawsuit filed in November 2014 by a group of Marion County residents came to a recent semi-permanent end in favor of the residents. Federal Judge Timothy Corrigan entered an order in May ruling that the city and Ocala Police Chief Greg Graham violated the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment by organizing, promoting and holding a prayer vigil in September 2014.

Corrigan awarded the three plaintiffs — Art Rojas, and Lucinda and Daniel Hale — $1 each from both the city and Graham.

The vigil was held after a crime spree in Ocala. The purpose, attorneys for the city and police chief have argued, was to encourage residents to speak with the police to help bring justice to victims.

“In sum, under the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment of the United States Constitution, the government cannot initiate, organize, sponsor, or conduct a community prayer vigil. That is what happened here,” wrote Corrigan, a judge for the U.S. District Court of the Middle District of Florida.

The Establishment Clause refers to the first 10 words of the First Amendment: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion.”

Attorneys for the city and Graham have since filed a motion to vacate the judge’s summary order, stating the plaintiffs alleging the violation have no standing. They add that steps taken after the filing to ensure an event like the prayer vigil does not occur again makes the case moot.

Bluestein, who had not read Corrigan’s order, said there is a difference between religious invocations at the opening of government meetings and vigils. The religious invocations, she said, were in practice when the Establishment Clause was conceived and adopted.

Unlike legislative prayer, a “long tradition of government-sponsored prayer vigils does not exist,” said Darren Hutchinson, associate dean for faculty development at the University of Florida’s Levin College of Law. Hutchinson teaches and has written about constitutional law.

Hutchinson, who read Corrigan’s opinion in the case, said the prayer in the federal suit is distinguishable from legislative prayer.

“In fact, officials in the case admitted that they came up with the novel idea in order to combat a perceived crime problem,” he wrote in an email. “Also, this was not simply a short prayer that was the prelude to an otherwise secular meeting. Instead, the prayer was the totality of the event.”

Curran attended the prayer vigil in question and said it brought the community together and was interracial and inter-denominational. While he thought the vigil was good, he said, in general, the government shouldn’t put on religious events. Hecht said he did not know enough about the vigil to comment.

Corrigan cannot comment on cases with outstanding issues, according to one his law clerks.

The judge ordered last week that the Marion County residents would have until Aug. 31 to respond to the motion to vacate, according to court records. They have not yet done so.

Contact Katie Pohlman at 867-4065, or @katie_pohlman.

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